This first visit to the States in over two years was planned around the events celebrating the 75th anniversary of the DC-3. As a big fan of old propliners and jetliners, this was a not to be missed event, with the 'Last Time' organizers planning a gathering of Daks at a previously unheard of airfield in NW Illinois called Rock Falls. As part of the event, a mass formation was planned, to fly up to Oshkosh for the coinciding EAA Air Venture 2010. The DC-3 actualy first flew on 17th December 1935 at Clover Field, Santa Monica, 32 years to the day after the Wright Brothers historic flight at Kitty Hawk, being designed by Jack Northrop, who had moved over to work with the Douglas Aircraft Company.
As part of planning this trip, around Rock Falls & Oshkosh, other options were looked at, as part of what was to end up being an eleven day trip to the States. Another major event going on around the time was the planned launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavour on mission STS-134 on 29th July. With only two launches remaining, this was something i had really wanted to try and catch before the Shuttle is retired, to hopefully get some great shots from the NASA causeway viewing point (the closest the public can get to a launch). However, due to a delay with the payload being ready in time (the 'Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer', built in Switzerland), the launch was subsequently put back into 2011, with Discovery now due to launch next on STS-133. So, as the remaining trip plan was being finalised, i now had a 'spare' four days, which was to have been for Florida to catch the Shuttle. Thought had been given to flying up to Detroit, and having a few days at Willow Run and Toledo Express chasing old jets. However, the thought of shooting Pakistani F-16's and Saudi F-15's among others, on Red Flag at Nellis AFB at the time, along with the rest of what Las Vegas has to offer, was too good to resist, and it was also somewhere i had never been. And so, the planning was done, with the main events starting in Illinois with the Prairie Airshow, followed by Rock Falls and up into Wisconsin for Oshkosh, before down to Milwaukee for the flight to Vegas. After Sin City, it was back to Chicago, for a couple of days at the Rockford Airfest, before heading home. Unfortunately 'The Elbow' couldn't make the trip, but i was to be joined by Craig 'Hamish' McCorriston from Linlithgow for the first part of what was looking like a great trip. Game on...
DAY 1 FRIDAY 23RD JULY
Taking the direct Manchester-Chicago ORD service with American Airlines, after the early drive, it was onto AA55 operated by B757-200(WL) N189AN. Departing at 1010, the 8.10 hour flight was in at 1220L. Craig meanwhile, had flown a less direct route, with Easyjet from Edinburgh to Belfast, then Continental B757 to Newark and ERJ down to O'Hare, arriving not long before my flight. Meeting up in the rental car park, which gives a good view of aircraft on finals to one of the many runways here (27L), he was lucky enough to catch a USMC EA-6B Prowler among the regular stuff!
Our intention today was to finish up at Peoria, around 130 miles to the South West, after visiting three airports en route. So, with half of the day left, it was straight off to the first stop, the GA/Executive airport of Chicago-Du Page. This large, well kept airport, receives some of the biz movements for the Chicago area, with a few hangars housing some resident biz. First shot of the trip was to be the nice BBJ1 N888TY, parked on the main ramp next to the terminal. This is a frequent visitor to Zurich during the WEF, and looked sweet here in the great weather. Good start! Other highlights were a pair of classic Westwind's, with a very friendly guy showing us in his hangar, to photograph N78GJ which was for sale, alongside its replacement Citation Soverign N680AK. The nice weather wasn't to last though, with some menacing looking clouds starting to build up as we headed to our next stop, Ottawa-Skydive Chicago Airport. As we arrived the jump aircraft were being pulled into the hangar due to the approaching storm, with the Twin Otter and Skyvan quickly photographed before heading over to the old DC-3. N408D 'Lady Luck' is a former jump aircraft, now retired. It was just then that the warm humid temperature suddenly dropped, as the wind picked up, quickly followed by a massive downpour. This weather was, as we were to discover, have a dramatic effect on events over the next few days, as we quickly headed off for our next stop, at times crawling down the highway in treacherous conditions.
On reaching Bloomington Airport, 84 miles to the South, the weather was breaking, resulting in some nice shots with the dramatic dark sky. The friendly people at FBO Image Air, were then kind enough to let us onto their ramp and hangars, which were to reveal an unusual suprise, a 'Convair 880' nose section, painted in 'Delta 880' colours! Said to be a pre-production airframe converted to a simulator... was it 'real'? With some panels held together with screws and not rivets, along with the slightly odd-shaped nose cone, could suggest a mock-up, although maybe still an 'original' Convair mock-up? After Bloomington, we were hoping to reach Peoria in time to catch the Prairie Night Airshow, but getting there well after dark, following the 50 miles drive West, and with the show about to finish, we decided to head straight to the hotel. Not surprisingly, after all the travelling we were bushed, so called it a night, not needing much rocking!
DAY 2 SATURDAY 24TH JULY
Getting into the Prairie Airshow at Peoria Airport as the gates opened, our intention today was to shoot everything as quickly as possible without many people around, before heading off. Anyone who has been to American airshows will know this can be very difficult, as usualy there are no/few barriers or ropes to stop people 'swarming' over the aircraft, making photography a nightmare. Getting in early obviously helped, although 'waiting for the sun' meant it still took a couple of hours. Highlights included the 'Tulsa' F-16CG in high-viz markings, with the USAF guys kindly agreeing to pull the steps out the way, to get a better shot. Others included the US Navy agressor F-5N from NAS Fallon, and the always welcome Hogs, with two A-10C's from Whiteman AFB. With the storm-like clouds still around, combined with sunshine, this made for some nice shots, with some decent subjects. Leaving the show, the plan was for a quick stop at Moline-Quad City, 90 miles to the NW, before on to Rock Falls, a further 55 miles to the NE. Possibly because of the bad weather around, Quad City was host to one of the DC-3's en route to Rock Falls, with the very smart, polished N3006 getting ready to depart. Indeed, after we left, the aircraft routed over us at quite low level, beating us to Rock Falls.
Also known as Whiteside County Airport, Sterling-Rock Falls were certainly having their 'ten minutes of fame', as the small airfield, with no terminal or services, was the focus for the 'Last Time' gathering of DC-3's to celebrate the aircraft's 75th anniversary. The organisers had originally chosen the airfield as a 'staging post' for the aircraft and crews to meet up on 24th & 25th July, prior to launching a mass formation to then head up to Oshkosh on Monday 26th, as the highlight of Air Venture 2010. As the event gained momentum and popularity among the aircraft operators, the organisers increased and capped the total to 40 aircraft, and revealed the 'secret' star of the event would be the TWA DC-2 from the Seattle Museum of Flight, flown in by legendary pilot Clay Lacy. Awesome! However, some negative news was also coming to light, with the 'Last Time' organisers and the EAA Air Venture organisers no longer co-operating on the plans for the mass-formation arrival at Oshkosh, leading to a rift between the two groups. This came to a head when the EAA announced it would "exclusively organize and co-ordinate all Air Venture activities for the DC-3 75th anniversary", to which the 'Last Time' organisers responed on their website by saying it was a "hostile takeover attempt" of the event, after they had been working on the gathering for over a year, independently and without any support from the EAA. The EAA responded by saying it wasn't a hostile takeover attempt, rather it was just trying to ensure the event went smoothly and safely. However, it seemed the damage was done, as it was followed by the announcement that the formation flight up to Oshkosh was to be cancelled, and would instead be done over Rock Falls, as the event there was growing into an airshow of its own. Infact, originally, only those with media accreditation could attend the gathering at Rock Falls, but that then changed to all the public being welcome. So some good news, in a way, but not what some enthusiasts, who would only be going to Oshkosh, wanted to hear! This now meant a visit to Rock Falls could be essential, to catch all the Dak's, in case it came to the worst, and none or not all of them made it up to Oshkosh, with nobody really sure what was actually going to happen in the end! However, the situation eventually calmed down, and 26 DC-3's made it to Rock Falls, down from the planned 40, with some aircraft affected by maintenance issues, put off by the extreme weather at the time, or put off by the politics going on (with a few just going straight to Oshkosh)! However, the formation flight up to Oshkosh was back on, and went ahead as planned with 23 aircraft in the end, after three had developed problems before or after take off from Rock Falls on the day.
And so, after getting into the show, the rest of the day was spent photographing and enjoying the sights and sounds of DC-3's, as more were arriving, while others were giving pleasure flights (some in formation), and all in great weather. In addition to the Daks, a couple of nice visitors today included the departing EMB-135BJ N53NA, which belongs to one of the DC-3 owners. Registered to DC3 Entertainment LLLP, it is operated for John Phelps. Then, the arrival of Paris II N760X was a very nice surprise. Built in 1959, obviously theres not many of these things flying these days, and is one of only a couple in the States (which was to be seen again at Oshkosh a couple of days later, along with another example). Also, a small incident today, was Starduster N32JM having a 'naughty' little moment on landing. Just after touchdown, it appeared to be caught by a gust of wind and was 'flipped' into the corn field by the side of the runway! However, it ended up with no damage or injury, and after being dragged out by a tractor, the aircraft taxied to stand under its own power. Speaking with the pilot later, after he had calmed down, he confirmed the only damage was to his ego! No wonder Snoopy doesn't look very happy!
A very good day here then, with a lot of great shots of the Daks. Too many to mention, they are all detailed in the photographs. Personally, its always nice to see them in vintage airline colours, with Eastern Airlines, Western Airlines and Piedmont Airlines examples present, in addition to the TWA DC-2. Heading off to the hotel for the night, this was a bit out of town, after not booking early enough to get one closer. Not surprisingly, there are not that many in this rural area, which had all been quickly booked up for a long time, with this event.
DAY 3 SUNDAY 25TH JULY
Todays plan was to reach Oshkosh by the end of the day, after taking in a few places en route. First though, after getting up and seeing the glorious weather outside, we decided to head back to Rock Falls to photograph the Dak's one more time, with the great sunlight now on 'the other side' of the aircraft. Also, a few had been difficult to shoot the day before, so after now getting good shots of all the aircraft, we began the long haul up to Oshkosh, around 215 miles to the North. First stop was Chicago-Rockford, including a visit to the Pride Aircraft hangar, who specialize in restoring and maintaining private, former Eastern block fighters and trainers, with some nice examples of the L-39 present, which has become very popular in the States. Also photographed, was a favourite of mine, the first Sabreliner of the trip, with ex USAF CT-39A 61-0641 now used by the Rock Valley College here. This visit to Rockford was to be the first of two on this trip, as i was to return a week later for the annual AirFest, when this large but quiet airport would be very different! Heading off, crossing over into Wisconsin, the next stop was Janesville, which didn't produce anything of interest, before we then reached Madison-Dane County Airport. This is home to the 115FW Wisconsin ANG F-16's, although being a Sunday the place was very quiet, with no aircraft even outside. However, the visit was made worthwhile by the presence of a FedEx B727-200 and ATR-72 parked nicely in the sun. From here it was across country up to Fond Du Lac, not far South of Oshkosh, which gave us the first real signs of how the recent very heavy rain had affected the area, and in particular the Air Venture show. We had heard that Oshkosh had stopped any more show arrivals after running out of parking space, with the usual grass parking areas too waterlogged to take aircraft. This resulted in Fond Du Lac receiving a lot of Air Venture light aircraft, with a lot of tents in evidence, as the owners camped out waiting for things to improve and complete their journeys North. Of interest here, along with the masses of 'tin' were a few biz, as well as Mexican Navajo XB-JCA.
So onto Oshkosh, otherwise known as Wittman Regional Airport, home of the annual Air Venture, when the place becomes the busiest airport in the world, with over 10,000 aircraft visiting over the week! With the glorious weather continuing, we spent the rest of the day making a good start on photographing a lot of the nice stuff that was present around the airfield. First stop was the Basler facility along the SE perimeter, which was going to provide another dozen DC-3's and more! Infact, the company had decided to open their gates to the public, so we could freely walk around their ramp and storage area, shooting everything present, apart from what was being worked on inside the hangars. I'm sure most photographers, being gratefull for the access to their facility, respected this request. Among the many classics present, which included a couple of Convairs, highlights had to be Aero Libertad DC-3A XA-RPN (actually registered as N22357), and Buffalo Airways C-47A C-GPNR, which was parked here prior to static display at Air Venture.
Basler Turbo Conversions LLC has a long history at Oshkosh, beginning in the late 50's with FBO Basler Flight Service and Basler Airlines, flying the DC-3. Following years of experience on the DC-3, this lead to a plan to make major improvements and modernize the aircraft, resulting in the 'Basler BT-67'. Work on the first conversions began in 1990 at the new facility, with old DC-3 airframes receiving a new life after being fitted with P&W PT6A-67R five-bladed turboprop engines, as well as a longer, strengthened fuselage, modifications to the leading edges and wing-tips, as well as new avionics etc. At the time of the visit, as well as the Dak's that were present outside, which await potential conversion or spares use, the 'production' hangar contained three aircraft in the early stages of the modification process, all in bare metal without wings or tail fins. In addition, was an aircraft nearing the end of the process, with N56KS being all but finished, though still unpainted, destined to become C-FTGX a few months later. Also to mention at Basler, is the 'field storage' area located nearby over the road outside, containing five more DC-3 fuselages. We were not aware of this at first (i'm sure a lot of enthusiasts miss it), and although it involves a bit of a 'trek' getting there, it was well worth it, to add another five Dak's to the collection! These included the special N23SA, which was used as an experimental tri-turbo aircraft, with a PT-6A engine also fitted the nose, as shown at Farnborough in 1978. Then, as well as the C-53D, the three others included two ex Thai AF aircraft, with identities known, although which aircraft is which needs confirming.
From Basler, we headed around the airfield to do the main ramps around the terminal and FBO's, which were quite easily accessible, providing more good shots, including of the based Ford Trimotor (which is especially busy during the Air Venture week, operating pleasure flights), as well as some nice biz-jets. As we then still had enough of the day left, with the great weather, we then decided to head into the show. Our pre-bought tickets also allowed entrance on the Sunday, which was well worthwhile, giving us the chance to photograph the aircraft on the main show ramp (Aeroshell square) and other areas, with a lot less people around. Highlights here included the American Airlines DC-3 NC17334, and 'Eastern' DC-7B N836D, which had thankfully made it from Opa Locka, only twenty days after its 'first flight' (following a lengthy restoration). Also present, was the experimental Falcon 50 with huge, bizarre looking winglets. N789JC is fitted with NASA-sponsored 'Spiroid' winglets, which are arch-shaped and must be over 6ft high. Also, nearby it was a surprise to see the Saudi registered Kodiak 100, although the order was then cancelled, with the Prince then going for a Cessna Caravan instead.
And so another very good day was over, as we then drove the short distance to our 'digs' for the next two nights. With most hotel accommodation around Oshkosh booked up well in advance, a trend has grown here for local home owners to rent out rooms during the show, these being bookable via the main EAA website. So, deciding to give this a try, we had two bedrooms booked in a large family home, located around a mile South of the airfield, which worked very well (with the nice hospitality you would somehow expect).
DAY 4 MONDAY 26TH JULY
The bad weather cetainly was over, as we awoke to another glorious day, on Day 1 of Air Venture 2010, and a happy birthday to me! First off was another quick visit to Basler, with good sunlight on 'the other side' of the DC-3's and Convairs outside. From here, we then looked for a good spot around the end of the main landing runway, which was Runway 36 from the South, to photograph some arrivals from the Eastern side of the airfield (with the show side being better in the afternoon when the sun had got around). Parking at the end of a lane next to the edge of a large garden and private house, we were able to get pretty good landing shots from here. That was until the owner sent his very large dog out to 'deal with us'! Luckily we both escaped a mauling as the guy then explained that he had grown sick of people hanging around his property during the show. However, obviously being a very reasonable guy, he then let us use his purpose built wooden stand at the bottom of his garden for an even better view! As well as the Trimotor, highlights here this morning among the arrivals, were the Wisconsin ANG F-16C, the nice formation of three L-39's, a T-33 and a Paris, the Paris from Rock Falls, and the ex US Navy Skyhawk.
After the few hours of landing shots, we left for the show, again via a quick look at the main ramps around the terminal and FBO's. This produced a few very nice biz-jets, including US Coast Guard Gulf 5 '01', aswell as US Customs & Border Protection modified Citation 550 N2531K, and Mexican Citation 501SP XB-IXT. Into the show, the highlight today was hopefully to be the mass-formation arrival of DC-3's from Rock Falls. On asking, it seemed nobody knew for sure what was happening with this, as we visited a couple of the Operations posts to try and find out what time they were expected, and very importantly, which runway they would be using, so we could position ourselves in a good spot to get touchdown shots. Frustratingly though, nobody seemed to know, and with most arrivals still using '36 we headed down that end with the Dak's not far out. But guess what! After the amazing sight and sound of 23 DC-3's flying over together in formation, they then split off for approach onto Runway 18! Quickly heading back along the crowdline, we then stopped at a spot opposite an intersection and shot them all as they rolled out on '18. That being the first of two 'not funny' moments at Oshkosh for us! Still, more good shots of the Dak's, just not the landing/touchdown shots we really wanted. From this position then, we sat and watched more of the show, before later taking a long walk around the rest of the static aircraft we wanted to photograph. Not really being interested in all the 'tin', this mainly involved the warbirds area, where all the Dak's had also parked up. As well as the more usual Mustangs etc, it was good to see some 'modern' warbirds here, such as the Collings Foundation F-4D and TA-4J.
DAY 5 TUESDAY 27TH JULY
Again awaking to another glorious day, we first bid farewell to the kind folks at the accomodation, with today's plan to go into the show for a few hours, before heading off to Milwaukee, where i had a flight out of later. First though, another quick look around Basler, where latest conversion N56KS was now sat outside on the ramp, enabling better shots. From here we headed to the end of the landing runway, which was now Runway 18 from the North, to find a good photospot. However, this was not so easy at this end, so we then found a spot for approach shots onto the cross runway, Runway 27, which was busier than '18. But with still not much happening we decided to head into the show, which then led to 'not funny' moment number two! As we queued to get into the show, we noticed a large aircraft heading to the overhead for downwind onto '18. Looking like a smokey prop' at first we thought it was a C-130, but as it got closer we could see it was an Orion, but then even closer... an Awacs Orion! C**t! If only we had stayed in our original position, we would have had fantastic shots of it on tight left-hand finals. You win some...!
Into the show, on Day 2 of Air Venture 2010, we spent some time close to Runway 27 for shots of the movements, before getting some final static shots. These included a certain US Customs & Border Protection P-3AEW N147CS, which had just arrived! Also now present, was a couple of very nice USAF aircraft, with a Beale T-38C and AFRC F-16C 87-0290/FM from Homestead in special 482FW 'Makos' colours. Finally, on our way out, we nipped into the HondaJet marquee to photograph prototype N420HA. Following work on this first aircraft for a couple of years now, the second aircraft has now also just flown this year, with FAA-conforming N420HJ making its first flight on 20th December. Production will be starting in 2011 at their new facility at Greensboro, NC.
And that was it, a good couple of days at Air Venture 2010. Leaving the show just after mid-day, Milwaukee is around 90 miles to the SE, with a couple of stops to be made en route. First was another quick visit to Fond Du Lac, which produced a couple more biz-jets, including an interesting Citation 500 with a 'Special Forces' logo, as well as Nigel Mansell's old Citation X. A Commemorative Air Foce Mustang was also present, giving pleasure flights. From here, one more stop was planned, at Hartford, where an Air Cargo Carriers SD-330 has been WFU for some time. Also present, crammed in a hangar were several fuselages, covered in graffiti. These were believed to be ex-Arkia Dash 7's, four of which were sold in the USA earlier this year. Unfortunately the guys working there asked us not to take any shots, which would have been difficult anyway. Interesting find though.
From here it was straight to Milwaukee, where more Shorts aircraft of Air Cargo Carriers would be found, at their facility along the NE perimeter here. Sometimes its difficult to tell if these things are WFU or not, but of those photographed, the two 360's could well have been airworthy, while the two 330's definately were not, with engines and other parts missing. These included the very nice, former Edwards C-23A, still with its AMARC code, now used for spares. Finally, still with a couple of hours spare, we found a good spot to photograph aircraft on finals to Runway 25 here, providing some good shots at this busy airport. As well as a FedEx MD-10, which we got two chances at, after a go-around, other highlights included the AirTran 'Baltimore Ravens' B717 logojet N946AT, and executive EMB-135BJ N913LX.
And so it was time to say farewell to Craig, who was then going to do some light aircraft flying around Milwaukee the following day, before heading back down to O'Hare for his Continental flights home. As for myself, it was onto AirTran B737-700 N354AT for flight FL771 to Las Vegas, off at 2120 and landing 3.20 hours later at 2240L. Time to feel the heat... even at night! After picking up the rental, i just had to take the drive up Las Vegas Boulevard, to see the amazing sights on offer. Not the quickest way, but it had to be done, with the main strip taking me almost all the way up to my motel for the next two nights, around 15 miles to the NE, just outside Nellis AFB... home of the legendary Red Flag. Part II to follow...