The 2005 airshow held at Naval Air Station Oceana was the most talked about event of the year on the international circuit, even though it's not especially large and photographically the show is far from ideal. Nevertheless, aviation photographers and other enthusiasts came from all over the world, many like myself from America's opposite coast, as well as groups from Canada, the UK, Holland, Japan as well as individuals from Brazil, Italy and even Australia.
They all came for one reason, to see the last display by F-14 Tomcat naval fighters before they're finally retired over the next year or so. During its 30 year service career the F-14 developed an aura and a mystique far greater than other aircraft like the F-15 Eagle or F-16 Fighting Falcon. This fascination is reserved for very few aircraft, though the Tomcat's predecessor, the F-4 Phantom II also acquired it during its lifetime. Somehow the Tomcat achieved it without anything like the combat record of the Phantom, or even the Eagle or Fighting Falcon. Neverthless the Tomcat certainly has high performance, and it could be that the movie Top Gun had a significant effect for many people.
Before the event, there was an extraordinary amount of speculation about the Oceana show on internet forums like FenceCheck in the USA and UKAR in the UK. Officially the last Tomcat demonstration had already been held at the 2004 Nellis Airshow, however True Believers couldn't imagine that the last display by such a distinctly navy plane would be at an air force airshow, nor could they comprehend the apparent official indifference to the possibility that there might not even be a Tomcat at Oceana, flying or otherwise. However, even though no display pilots existed in 2005, the navy higher ups finally gathered that there was a great deal of international interest in seeing an F-14 in the air, so Rocco and Smokin' Joe were hastily requalified for the tactical demonstration and one of the F-14s painted in a retro 1970s scheme was made available.
Just when Tomcat lovers thought they were in heaven, God punished their idolatory by sending hurricane Ophelia. The show was due to take place only a few weeks after the category 5 hurricane Katrina had wiped New Orleans off the map, so people were understandably nervous when Ophelia started tracing a path up the Atlantic coast towards southern Virginia, where NAS Oceana is located. Ophelia was certainly no Katrina - it repeatedly wavered between being a category 1 hurricane and a mere tropical storm, however wherever it went it dropped torrential rain, threatening to make Oceana a total washout. Worse yet, it stalled for several days off the coast near Virginia, its center moving at only 3 or 4 miles an hour, occasionally even retracing its path. Sure enough, the Friday practice day was mostly cloudy with one brief downpour.
On Saturday the weather was great, the flying was awesome and the Tomcat proved to be only one of the highlights of the show. An E2C+ Hawkeye with its unusual sounding 8 bladed propellers put on a vigorous demonstration, and there were the usual tactical demonstration by aircraft like an F-18 Hornet and an F-16 Fighting Falcon. A special treat was provided by a pair of F-86 Sabres piloted by Ed Shipley and Dale Snodgrass, who is often described as Mr Tomcat because he has amassed more hours flying the F-14 than anyone else. The Sabres performed an air force Heritage Flight with the F-16 and a QF-4 Phantom II drone painted up in a South-East Asia color scheme. Hard core enthusiasts were also rewarded by the arrivals and departures of an air force B-52 Stratofortress and a C-5 Galaxy, and by a Canadian air force CC-115 Buffalo transport which was being used to airdrop military parachute teams from the US, UK and Canada.
The Blue Angels also did their usual immaculate display, but for once they were upstaged at an airshow when the Tomcats took to the air, first as part of the fleet flyby in formation with their successors the F/A-18C Hornet and F/A-18F Super Hornet, then in a flight of four F-14s and finally with the solo display, which over the course of the weekend was done using a Tomcat painted in today's standard low-visibility grey color scheme, as well as one painted in a more colorful 1970s retro scheme. The entire Tomcat display was a sight to behold as they put the bird through its paces, lighting the afterburner to display its brute noise and power, and doing multiple passes with landing gear, tailhook and flaps extended, slow passes with wings extended and fast passes with wings swept all the way back. After the display on Sunday the two pilots were feted before the crowd in traditional manner, but it was just a little bit sad to see the real star of the show, the Tomcat, being unceremoniously towed back to its parking place on the ramp.