Lightning in the Desert – Luke Days 2014
Article and Photos by Steven Valinski
Luke Air Force Base’s highly anticipated “Lightning in the Desert” air show was one of three air shows to begin the military air show season the weekend of March 15th-16th. While many aviation enthusiasts were curious as to what a post-sequester military air show may look like, Luke AFB’s air show put any fears of a scaled-down air show to rest. Anticipation for this air show began towards the end of last year when Arizona residents were informed that Luke AFB would receive their first F-35A Lightning II aircraft sometime in the first quarter of 2014. The arrival of the F-35 would mark a new beginning at Luke AFB, as they transition from an F-16 Fighting Falcon training base, to an F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter training base. Luke AFB’s first F-35 arrived on March 10th just ahead of the air show.
The weekend’s festivities began with the official F-35 unveiling celebration on March 14. Many of the aircraft due to be on static display from the show were arriving as early as Thursday, March 13. For aerial demonstration purposes, three F-35’s from Eglin AFB in Florida were flown in. As visitors entered the air show grounds, they could not help but to be impressed with the numerous static aircraft displays throughout the grounds. The support for military static displays was one of the components of military air shows that was impacted financially by the budget cuts in Washington. Still, even with the financial restrictions, the personnel organizing the air show at Luke AFB put together an impressive combination of private and military aircraft for visitors to the show. Some of the more impressive military aircraft included: a Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor, a Lockheed AC-130W Stinger II, a German Air Force Panavia Tornado, a McDonnell Douglas F-15E Strike Eagle, a Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II, and, of course, Luke’s first Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II. Some of the highlights of the civilian-owned aircraft included: a Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15, a Douglas A-4 Skyhawk, a Aero L-39 Albatros, a Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star, and a Grumman TBF Avenger. The static aircraft displays not only served as a showing of airpower, past and present, but they created an interactive experience for air show visitors by allowing them to interact with the pilots and, in the case of some of the larger aircraft, tour the aircraft. Many of the Luke AFB-based squadrons set up tables selling their squadron merchandise while local pilots and maintainers spoke about the complexities of the specific aircraft to visitors.
The air show included various military and civilian demonstrations which began with the USAF Wings of Blue Skydiving Team, and ended with the USAF Thunderbirds F-16 Demonstration Team. The list of performers included:
Deer Valley Warbirds
SRT Viper vs. F-16 “Viper” race
Eagle 580, Matt Chapman Air Shows
Extra 330, Mike Goulian Aero Sports
F-16 close air support demonstration with USMC ground forces demonstration
Bremont Horsemen P-51 Demo
P-51 Red Tail Tuskegee demonstration
USAF Thunderbirds F-16 Demonstration Team
T-33 Ace Maker – Gregory Colyer
T-34, Julie Clark Air Shows
USMC MV-22 Osprey demo
USAF Wings of Blue Skydiving Team
USAF Heritage Flight
F-35 and P-38 Heritage Flight
Other than the USAF Thunderbirds, the clear highlight of the show was the “Twin Lightning” performance of the P-38 and F-35 heritage demonstration. The original Lockheed Lightning and the Lockheed-Martin Lightning II flying together was the first time these aircraft performed together in a Heritage Flight. This was an historical event, although I am not sure how many people, outside the aviation enthusiast community, realized the historical significance of this Heritage Flight. The ACC USAF Heritage Flight of an F-16, F-86, and P-38 was also a special one. Especially, considering a Luke-based F-16 was used for the flight. Other very good military demonstrations included the MV-22 Osprey demo and the F-16 Close Air Support demo. The F-16 CAS demo was an exciting combination of tactical flying and pyrotechnics designed to show how the F-16 can be used to support ground troops if needed.
With the civilian and/or warbird aircraft, the F-86 demonstrations were excellent. The North American F-86 Sabre is a beautiful aircraft, with their swept-wing design and polished aluminum shell, these transonic fighters ruled the skies during the Korean War. Greg Colyer’s T-33 demo is always a fantastic performance. Greg always manages to excite the crowd with his signature photo passes. Other good demonstrations were from the Bremont Horsemen P-51 demo team, the P-51 Tuskegee demo, the Deer Valley Warbirds with their Nanchang CJ-6’s, and Julie Clark Air Shows. The acrobatics of Jack Knutson, Rob Holland, Matt Chapman Air Shows, and Mike Goulian Aero Sports also provided some thrills for the audience. In addition, the performances of the Jet Car and the race between the SRT Viper and the F-16 Viper proved entertaining.
With Luke AFB’s last air show in 2011, the cancellation of last year’s air show, and the expected arrival of the F-35, anticipation for this show by aviation enthusiasts and local residents was very high. With an impressive collection of static displays and performers, the show was worth the anticipation and wait.
Now if we can only convince the USAF to allow Luke AFB have an air show every year…
I would like to thank Capt. Ryan DeCamp , Lt. Candice Dillitte, and their staff for all their help and patience accommodating the media during this event.