Miramar Air Show launches Friday with a salute to Vietnam veterans

9:42:00 PM

The pilot in the No. 5 Blue Angels jet this weekend thought his flying career was over two years ago.

Then Cmdr. Frank Weisser returned to the Navy’s flight team, filling an unexpected opening last summer after a deadly crash left the squadron down a pilot. Previously, he flew with the team from 2008 to 2010.

“I hadn’t flown for three years. So just reintroducing myself to aviation in general was a big jump for me,” said Weisser, 39, who was working a desk job in Germany when he got the call.

Now Weisser will be one of the stars of the Miramar Air Show, which again features a daily performance by the flashy blue-and-gold Navy F/A-18 Hornets, in addition to Marine Corps aircraft and civilian stunt pilots.

This year, the annual three-day air show will pay special tribute to Vietnam veterans.

At two pinning ceremonies daily, at 10:15 a.m. and 1:55 p.m., veterans of that war are eligible to receive a lapel pin honoring their service.

The effort is led by the Pentagon's Vietnam War Commemoration Office, which is marking the 50th anniversary of the escalation of the conflict, which stretched from Nov. 1, 1955, to May 15, 1975.

A half-scale replica of the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., will also be on display. The wall lists 58,318 names of those lost during the war. Visitors can take etchings of the names on the wall with paper provided, officials said.

Vietnam veterans will have an opportunity to tell their stories on film, and members of the public can record personalized messages of thanks to those who have served.

The idea to highlight the Vietnam era came from Col. Jason Woodworth, commanding officer of Miramar Marine Corps Air Station.

He was attending a Veterans Day parade in Poway when he realized that most of the vets in attendance were no longer from the World War II or Korean War periods.

“They had people stand up based on what war they had fought in, and three-fourths of the crowd stood up when (they said) Vietnam,” Woodworth said Thursday. “So we said, maybe it’s time to really recognize these people a little better than we have in the past.”

It’s a story that’s close to home. The Vietnam War was costly for the Marine Corps.

Nearly 500,000 Marines served in Southeast Asia from 1965 to 1975. More than 13,000 were killed and 88,000 wounded, nearly a third of all American casualties.

Still largely a joyous flexing of American military power, the air show is meant to spotlight the service members who operate the flying machines and delight the taxpayers who fund them.

About 400,000 people are expected to attend the free event between Friday and Sunday.

The estimate marks a slight drop from the past, possibly explained by the permanent cancellation of the Saturday twilight show. Organizers decided that holding two shows on one day stretched resources in an unsafe way.

The rest of the event is largely unchanged, with the Blue Angels team as the marquee act.

The team is renowned for putting the rib-shaking power of naval aviation on display.

Blue Angels Nos. 1 through 4 — known as the “diamond” formation -- do stunts that highlight the grace and finesse of their jet, which was the Navy’s foremost fighter until the recent rollout of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

The showstopper for the “diamond” planes is when they fly with each plane’s wings only 18 inches apart from his wingman.

Blue Angels Nos. 5 and 6 showcase the maximum performance of the aircraft.

“We show you how fast it can go, how low it can go, how high it can go, the G-forces it can hold, how tight it can turn,” said Weisser, who pilots No. 5.

Some of those data points: How fast the F/A-18 can go is classified. But, at the air show, they fly just shy of the speed of sound.

Weisser said he sometimes withstands a force of 7.5 G’s. That means his usually 200-pound body feels like it weighs 1,500 pounds, he said. There’s also danger of passing out.

“It becomes a very physical endeavor for us,” No. 5 said. “Everyone is capable of doing it, but there’s a bit of an endurance to it.”

Weisser said that Blue Angels pilots focus on legs and core strength in their physical training. It doesn’t help to be a big bodybuilder with a strong upper body when trying to pull G’s, he said.

Two tragedies in recent years have marked the Blue Angels’ performance.

The team’s “Fat Albert” C-130 cargo plane won’t be appearing this weekend. It was grounded along with all C-130T aircraft after a similar plane crashed in Mississippi during a July training flight, killing 15 Marines and one sailor.

Last year, the Fat Albert plane also did not perform with the Blue Angels at Miramar. Back then the aircraft was getting a 10-month maintenance overhaul.

Also, the June 2016 death of Marine Capt. Jeff Kuss, who was Blue Angels No. 6, has changed at least one maneuver.

Kuss crashed just after takeoff during a practice flight for the Great Tennessee Air Show.

Kuss had attempted to do a “split S” maneuver after takeoff but was too low and going too fast for the procedure, according to the Navy judge advocate general investigation.

The “split S” is a sharp vertical takeoff followed by an inverted swoop back toward the ground.

Instead, Blue Angels pilots will perform an Immelmann turn, which is considered less complicated. The pilot performs the sharp vertical takeoff, flips to an inverted position while flying parallel to the ground, and then rights the craft while still parallel.

The wild card for this weekend will be the weather — in particular the cloud cover. The skies of Miramar were cloudy on Thursday while pilots did practice flights for the show.

There are four different versions of the Blue Angels performance, depending on the conditions.

During a “high show,” with a cloudless sky, the planes can fly as high as 15,000 feet, said Blue Angels public affairs officer Lt. Joe Hontz.

“We do everything we can to make it a high show,” he said.


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