Normally at this time of year, the eyes of aviation enthusiasts in the northern Nevada and central California area are all focused on activities occurring at Reno Stead Airport (RTS) in anticipation of the start of the annual National Championship Air Races (also referred to as the Reno Air Races).
Indeed, the first official day of racing is just a few short days away … and PlaneViz will have a photographer there. RTS is about 45 minutes west of my home, the gas tank in my old Saturn “spotter wheels” is topped off, and I am ready to begin my daily “commute.”
But there was a fantastic surprise that took place last week at the busy United States Navy air station located only 35 minutes east of my house. While watching the local news on Thursday, September 3rd, I heard there had been Lightning Strikes at Naval Air Station Fallon. The news anchor reported that the US Navy’s VFA-101 “Grim Reapers” squadron, flying the Navy’s newest warbird, the F-35C Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, had arrived at NAS Fallon for a week-long training exercise stay.
In the late afternoon one week later, my phone rang, and to my stunned (and ultra-delighted) shock, I received a fantastically unexpected invitation to attend a small-group media tour the next morning to see the F-35C up close.
Meghann Myers, a staff correspondent for the NAVY TIMES; Tracy Soliday, a constituent service representative from Nevada Congressman Mark Amodei’s office; and I would be in attendance to view four F-35C fighters and be briefed by Commander James “Cruiser” Christie, VFA-101 “Grim Reapers” Squadron CO. And … it was A-OK for me to bring my camera. :-)
The next morning, we were met at the Fallon gate by United States Navy Public Affairs Officer Zip Upham, who is in charge of the NAS Fallon PA office. Zip arranged base access for the ladies and we drove to Hangar 2. Prior to entering, Zip, noting that I was the only person carrying a bag full of camera equipment, gave me a very specific set of photographic “can-and-cannot” guidelines.
Once inside Hangar Two, we were met by Commander Christie, the “Grim Reapers” skipper. Except for test squadron pilots, VFA-101 is the first Navy squadron to fly the USN’s newest warbird, and “Cruiser” was obviously proud of his squadron for having that distinction.
Each member of our small group was allowed to look inside the cockpit of the F-35C. The “dashboard” of this new military metalbird has a truly new look: it is all one big “flat screen TV.” No dials, no gauges, no buttons, no switches, not even a HUD. Regretfully, taking pictures of the cockpit interior was not permitted; I even had to leave my camera behind when I climbed up the stairs for my look, but trust me; it is pure 21st century.
We also had plenty of time to see the other three Lightnings parked on the ramp.
As I am presently in the process of 1) familiarizing myself with my brand new Canon camera (purchased yesterday) and 2) prepping for my upcoming daily trips to RTS to photograph the action at the Reno Air Races, I am posting photos from the tour but my commentary from this point on will be rather abbreviated. I’ve included info in captions under the pictures.
Two of the Grim Reapers Lightnings were being prepped for participation in a training exercise. Although I could not be allowed to take an object-specific picture of the helmet worn by Lightning pilots, I was told it would be OK to photograph a pilot who just happened to be passing by … and that pilot just happened to be wearing his helmet. The click was a hurried one taken “from the hip,’ so the quality is poor, but it does show the remarkable helmet and visor.
The visor of this helmet replaces the HUD found in previous warbirds; all data appears on the visor. Also, with this helmet and visor, the pilot is able to see every aspect of his aircraft and all that is around it merely by turning his head slightly. (* In the close up photo of the cockpit section posted above, one of the many camera positions can be seen below the “105” marking. *) By looking down, pilots are even able to see “thru” their lower torsos to view the undersides of their aircraft, and the speed and altitude of their warbird is constantly displayed on the visor no matter which direction their head is facing. The helmet/visor combination has other extraordinary features, too.
When our ramp and hangar tours were completed, Zip led us out of Hangar 2 and up to a top floor of the control tower to watch from that vantage point as the Lightning IIs launched from runway 31L.
* * * * To Zip Upham … Zip, my friend, there is no way I can thank you enough for this unparalleled opportunity. It was a tremendous privilege for me to be afforded the chance to be included on this media tour. I cannot express my appreciation strongly enough. Thank You very, very much, Zip. * * * *