Review of the Heart of Texas Airshow

For the first time in twenty-three years, the USAF Thunderbirds scheduled Waco for a show, so when I saw the airshow schedule for 2015, I decided to try to find the time to hop in the car and drive the three hours up to Waco on June 6. The show is called the Heart of Texas airshow, and if I heard correctly over the PA system, this was the third year for the show. The show was apparently able to attract the Thunderbirds because it was celebrating the 50th anniversary of the host of the show, Texas State Technical College (Waco), which is located on the old James Connally Air Force Base (originally Waco Army Airfield).

I didn’t decide to go to the show until the week of the show, and I decided to go on Saturday because of a family commitment on Sunday. The weather for both days was expected to be hot and partly cloudy, which aided my decision making. The show offered four types of admission — general admission ($15.00), flight line seats ($25.00), chalet seats, and a photo pit. Both the photo pit and the chalet were $50.00. The chalet seating offered covered and uncovered seating, portable toilet access, water, and snacks (chips). Flight line seating was basically folding chairs, not far from show center, with no other amenities.

The photo pit, however, was a bit of a mystery. The web site offered basically no details. I hoped that some of the same benefits as the chalet seats would be available, but I really couldn’t tell. Even the location of the photo pit with respect to show center wasn’t revealed. The show had a Facebook page, with daily updates, but that offered no help either. The best information I could find was offered by the Dallas Aviation Photography Group, which is hosted at Meetup.com. DAPG apparently had some hand in organizing the photo pit and publicized it within their site, but  other than encouraging members to attend, they offered no real insight, either.

I decided to purchase a chalet seat, and they were available on Wednesday before the show, but  I procrastinated, and sure enough, they were sold out on Thursday evening. I decided to roll the dice and buy the photo pit ticket, with the hope that it would have a few amenities, much like the photo pit at Wings Over Houston.

I left home about 7:15 a.m. and made it to the airport about 10:45, which was about what I expected given that I stopped for breakfast along the way. The airshow web site pointed out a number of options for parking, with the primary route being to park on the north apron of the airport. Given my past experiences with the traffic chaos before Wings Over Houston, I was a little worried on my way up the road to the airport, by my apprehensions were misplaced. I pretty much drove straight in, waived my ticket, and was able to park quickly.

The show entrance wasn’t far from where I parked the car, but the entrance was a long way from the photo pit (about 3/8-mile, I think). I got my photo pit wristband at the gate and started walking. Unfortunately, the location of the photo pit wasn’t marked, so I probably covered more like a half-mile just to find it. The air temperature was already approaching 90 °F, the sun was bearing down, and the light concrete was reflecting the heat. I found the VIP area, which was next to the chalet seating, and a pop-up cabana for DAPG, but no signs for a photo pit. I wandered further down the apron, saw a guy with some serious camera gear, and asked him if he knew where the photo pit was. He said he didn’t but that he had seen the DAPG cabana, and perhaps they would know.

So I circled back, found the DAPG cabana again, and asked someone there about the photo pit. Big surprise — they were it. My heart sank when I looked around. The view in front of the pit was completely blocked by a military band seated and playing on a riser. There was a small gap to the left of the riser, but there was no way more than two or three people could fit in the gap — and two people had already staked out spots with their tripods (I still don’t get the idea of trying to shoot planes flying 500 mph with a camera mounted on a tripod). There was no water or snacks — or chairs. The cabana was a standard 10×10-ft pop-up, which had room for maybe eight people underneath it. The only good news was that there were five or six portable toilets next to the cabana, which were apparently for the VIPs but had no one monitoring them.

I had probably been walking for only 15 minutes, and I could already see that I shouldn’t risk going much longer without water. The web site for the airshow said no food or drink could be brought in, so I didn’t bring any with me. I stepped away from the pit and started looking for water. Unfortunately, and I don’t know if it was intentional or not, all of the food and drink vendors were positioned well off the flight line and scattered at that. Just going for a bottle of water was going to take five minutes every time I did it. I found a family serving chicken fingers and paid them $3.00 for a half-liter of water. By the time the day was over, I think I shelled out over $20.00 for water and a frozen lemonade, most of it to that family. I was so beaten down by the heat, I had no hunger the whole day.

When I got back to the photo pit, I was starting to think about just staking out a spot along the flight line, away from the pit. There was plenty of open space along the temporary fencing at 11:30. The only problem is that I didn’t even think to bring a bag chair. I just assumed the photo pit would have something to sit on.

About that time, someone in the photo pit wondered if the band would vacate the riser before the airshow started so that we might use it. It was an intriguing thought, so I decided to stick around and see. Sure enough, the band wrapped up, packed up, took their music stands and some of the chairs, and left just before the official noon start. Tentatively, a few of us took the steps and started standing on the riser. No one said anything to us, so we more or less stayed. A few chairs were left behind, so some of the photographers grabbed them and put them under the cabana (which actually reduced the number of people who get in out of the sun).

The (really) good news is that the riser was more or less at show center, and we had only about a dozen photographers. We were standing right behind the air boss and the show announcers. Unfortunately, that also meant that their radio masts were right in our sight lines. I was able to get a sense of where they were during the show and avoid them in many of my photos, but I probably have a dozen or so photos where an out-of-focus antenna aerial is clearly in the frame. The riser was probably about 30-ft long and 15-ft deep, so we had plenty of room to maneuver. Unlike Wings Over Houston, we also didn’t have too many photographers trying to use tripods and no one tried to stake out their space for the whole show. It was a pretty cooperative group of people.

No one affiliated with the management of the airshow ever approached the photo pit, as best I could tell. Even now, I don’t know if the DAPG folks just got permission to set up an ad hoc photo pit at the edge of the VIP area or if the show coordinators actually had a plan that included allowing us to use the riser. I do know that I paid $50.00, and basically all I got was a spot on that riser at show center and portable toilets.

The show started more or less on time at noon. The headline acts were the U.S. Army Golden Knights parachute team and, of course, the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds. The Golden Knights jumped twice; the first time to kick off the show, and the second time just before the Thunderbirds flew. There were a number of aerobatic performers, including Gene Soucy and Kent Pietsch. I have to admit watching Pietsch land his Jelly Belly-logoed Interstate Cadet on an RV (and not a large one, at that) was interesting.

Given the proximity to a number of warbirds based in Houston, Dallas, and Midland, I was disappointed that the Commemorative Air Force was represented by only three planes — the B-17 Texas Raiders, the PBJ-1J Devil Dog, and the P-51D Fragile but Agile. The Trojan Phylers were supposed to do some formation flying in their two T-28s, but only one actually flew.

Other than the Thunderbirds, no modern combat aircraft flew. The Navy flew in an F/A-18, but it was on static display only. Of course, with the sequester in place, its hard to get other demonstration teams except when shows are at active bases.

The Thunderbirds started their performance with the induction of  a group of USAF enlistees. Thunderbird 1, Lt. Col. Christopher Hammond, led them in taking their oath, with the other five Thunderbirds pilots standing next to them. It was really a pretty special event for the enlistees and their families.

The Thunderbirds flew their low show. They started flying at 3:35 p.m. and finished at 4:10. Visibility was good, but apparently the clouds were thick and low enough that they chose not to risk the high show. Given that the weather was otherwise excellent, it’s a shame they didn’t fly the high show, but I understand the need for caution.

Speaking of weather, the temperature topped out at 93 °F with a heat index of 97 °F, but the heat felt even worse with the sun beating down and reflecting off the concrete. There was a slight breeze, which helped keep the smoke from the performers dispersed.

Should anyone associated with the airshow read this review, I’ll offer a few comments. First, I think Wings Over Houston runs a good photo pit, and the Heart of Texas folks could learn from them. WOH has plenty of canopy space erected for shade, chairs and tables, portable toilets, drinks, and even box lunches. They provide a riser and even a scissor-lift, all for a charge of $75.00. WOH also has show volunteers manning the pit. The only advantage that Heart of Texas provided versus WOH is that the photo pit was at show center, which was indeed nice (WOH puts the photo pit down the flight line from show center). Also, whatever amenities the show organizers do choose to include should be well-publicized.

Second, for the audience in general, food and drink were too dispersed, and portable toilets were well off the flight line. A round trip to the toilet would easily take five minutes. Both services need to be closer to the flight line. Something else for the organizers to consider is to set up one or more cooling zones, with shade canopies and misting fans. Given the heat, the show should have allowed, and publicized, that water in non-glass bottles could be brought in. The show management actually prohibited drinks (which I assume includes water). Here is a quote from the web site:

No food, drink, coolers, large backpacks or weapons of any kind may be brought into the event. All items may be subject to random police search.

A heat index of 97 °F is in the extreme caution range. OSHA recommends one liter per hour of water intake in that heat index range. If I had to do it over again, I would wear a hydration pack and take my chances that anyone would stop me. One of the photographers in the pit did just that. Also many of the military reservist volunteers had hydration packs.

The big question is would I go again? Unless the Thunderbirds or Blue Angels were flying, I think my answer is no. An airshow in central Texas in June is just too hot to bear unless it has a prime act. I planned ahead and booked a hotel in Waco because I figured I would be too wiped out from the heat to make the three-hour drive back to Houston after the show, which proved to be a good decision. Consequently, my all-in cost for attending the show approached $200. As much as I enjoy airshows, that’s just a bit rich unless the show has a prime act (and many folks would say it was a bit rich, period, for an airshow).

I do want to thank the DAPG folks for at least bringing the canopy and providing some sense of organization to the photo pit. It helped.

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Day 1 of the 1940 Census

After all of the hype (at least to genealogists), the 1940 census is here … except it isn’t. The National Archives web site won’t load or operate correctly because of server load. Ancestry.com, which I pay for, has only a few states loaded, and none that I care about, so it’s a bust, too. FamilySearch.com, which is free, also has only a few states.

The good news is that if your family was in Virginia, both Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.com have images loaded. Ancestry.com is a bit slow, but it is running.

I wonder which will be first? Will the National Archives get their site up and running properly first or will Ancestry.com get all of the states loaded first. In other words, who wants to bet on profit motive versus government bureaucracy? And remember, the government had a head start of, oh, seventy-two years. Hmmm.

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Review of Fleet Week 2011 Airshow

On October 8, I attended my first Fleet Week Airshow in San Francisco, with family in tow. Overall, it was a great experience. We had a good day with regard to the weather, with the morning fog breaking more or less by showtime. The headline acts were the U.S. Navy Blue Angels and the Canadian Forces Snowbirds. Neither act disappointed. Other highlights of the show included a B-2 Spirit flight and a V-22 Osprey flight, both firsts for me, and a great F/A-18F Super Hornet high-speed pass that generated tremendous condensation bursts as the jet flew just below the speed of sound in the moist, cool air above the bay.

Blue Angels Delta

We purchased tickets at $35.00 each to the premium box seats well in advance, in late July, when I first realized that a business trip and vacation coincided with the airshow. The box seats were located at Marina Green, and we were able to get our pick of tickets, with the exception of many front row seats. Because I wanted to stand and guessed correctly that standing was discouraged in the seating area, I chose seats in the back corner of section 1, which was the closest to show center. I had no idea what we would find when we arrived and found both positive and negative surprises. There were vacant seats around us, so walking up and buying a ticket was certainly possible.

Among the positive aspects of the box seats was that they were in a fenced area to control access, and that area included both plentiful porta-potties and two food stands. Our seats were located about 30 feet from shore and gave me the easy ability to get up and walk around behind the seating area to get better angles on the planes. The center line for the show is along the North Bay shore, so the seats were in a good position in that regard (which would have been an astounding disappointment if they weren’t).

The biggest disappointment in the seating was that show center was clearly located to the east, somewhere around Fort Mason. Many of the two-plane passes were just too far away to get a dramatic shot, even at 400 mm. Compounding the displacement from show center, there were a number of obstacles in the sight line to show center. The bay was filled with sail boats and cabin cruisers watching the show, and their masts cropped up in my viewfinder way too often. In addition, section 1 seats were next to a small building (bathhouse, perhaps) associated with the green, and it obscured the view to show center, forcing me to walk west, away from show center to get a good angle. The same freedom that I had walking around behind the seats was used by a host of people during the show (especially later in the day), many of whom were not photographing planes but simply chatting (to give their backs a rest, I guess). Consequently, getting a good shot of the Blue Angels low-level passes without heads in the way proved difficult.

In spite of the drawbacks of the box seats, I did take a number of photos that I liked. If I attend the show again (and I hope to), I will think hard about trying to get to the Fort Mason Green area early and staking out a patch of ground. If I go with the box seats again, I’ll try to get seats on the back row of one of the sections between 10 and 15. They’re further from show center, but they aren’t obscured by the building.

Marina Green is, in general, the center of the airshow activities. The U.S. Armed Forces were well represented there with various interactive and static displays. Additional food vendors were located on the green, and porta-potties were available along Marina Boulevard. Many people set up blankets and folding chairs on the green and watched the show for free. On the east end of the green were various children’s activities (including several large inflatables).

Saturday is the best day to see the show for several reasons. One reason is that all of the flying performances are available on Saturday. The B-2 did not fly on Friday or Sunday, which is no surprise since it literally left Missouri Saturday morning and flew back in the same day. The foremost reason, however, is that the Fleet Week parade of ships occurs on Saturday morning. Ships from the U.S. 3rd Fleet in San Diego sail up for Fleet Week, and this year they were led by the U.S.S. Carl Vinson (CVN-70). The Carl Vinson sailed in under the Golden Gate in the morning fog at around 11:00 a.m., with her sailors on deck and rendering honors to the city. She was followed by a number of other U.S. and Canadian ships, which was a spectacular way to kick off the airshow.

A third and less obvious reason to see the show on Saturday is that the weather in San Francisco is notoriously unpredictable, particularly with regard to fog and haze. We actually arrived in San Francisco on Friday afternoon when the Blue Angels started flying and made it to the view point on the northeast side of the Golden Gate Bridge before the show ended. I was able to get a few photos, but the haze looking back at the city was awful. Also, for those who might be tempted, the airshow can be seen from the Marin Headlands, but the distance back to the show center line is just too far for good photos. On Sunday, the Blue Angels show was shortened for safety reasons because a fog started to move in. Consequently, planning to attend earlier and then having one or two days as back-up is a smart thing to do if you travel a long distance for the show.

By the way, even on Saturday, while the sun was shining, the air had a haze to it. I’ve had to warm up my raw images in post-processing because the daylight color temperature setting was just too cold.

If you enjoy seeing the take-off and landing drills of the flight demonstration teams, you’ll miss that at the Fleet Week airshow. The performers take off at San Francisco International (SFO) and fly in over the hill.

I found that the biggest challenge overall for the airshow was getting there. I had read several postings online discussing the horrid traffic once the flying begins and more so when it ends. We were staying in Marin County, and I struggled with driving in and trying to find a place to park or using public transit. In the end, I decided to use Golden Gate transit. We took the 80 bus from the San Rafael Transit Center (the 70 or 101 buses will work, also), got off at the Lombard and Fillmore stop, and walked the half-mile to Marina Green. We arrived before 10:00 a.m. and found that time early enough that we could have staked out a place on the green or perhaps even parked nearby (numerous others did and then schlepped chairs and coolers to the green). On the return, we thought we would try to eat along Chestnut Street somewhere, but every yuppie in the Marina District was already out partying at 5:00 p.m., so we just hopped the bus and headed back to San Rafael. It was a slow trip back across the GGB, but it was nice to let the bus driver deal with traffic.

For those readers who don’t photograph airshows regularly, I’ll offer a tip. You need a big lens, in general, for airshow photography, and you need one even more for this particular show. Most airshows are at airports, and the show center line is over the field, not that far from the crowd. In this case, the center line is further out over the bay. I use a Nikkor 80-400 zoom, and at most airshows, I frequently have to back off the zoom when the action is nearby. I rarely backed away from 400 mm at this show. In many cases, I would have been much happier with 500 mm. Nevertheless, the Nikkor 80-400 is a decent compromise for airshows. It’s much lighter in weight than the Nikkor 200-400 and much more portable, especially if you have to walk or use public transit. It’s a bit slower lens than the Nikkor 200-400 at the long end, but you really don’t need lens speed on a sunny day. The biggest issue with the Nikkor 80-400 is the focus speed. It hunts for focus way too often, and if you aren’t tracking the plane well, or a patch of smoke (or a mast) pops across the auto-focus sensor, you can lose focus fast at the wrong time. Of course, the price is 15–20 % of the Nikkor 200-400 or the Nikkor 500, so that can be an overriding factor.

In summary, if you get lucky and have a sunny day, this is a great airshow. The ambience of sitting by the bay watching the show with the GGB, the Marin Headlands, and Alcatraz in front of you and the city behind you can’t be beat. My only advice is to plan ahead and be prepared to change plans if the weather doesn’t cooperate.

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