Air & Space Airshow Spotter’s Guide

Fun facts about the airplanes you’ll see on the summer circuit.

Air & Space Airshow Spotter's Guide

Lockheed Martin F-16

Lockheed Martin F-16
(Illustrations by Harry Whitver)

How to recognize: Single vertical tail, cropped delta wing, half-moon air intake beneath cockpit.

Claim to fame at airshows: U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds perform precision formation aerobatics to demonstrate the agility of the front-line fighters.

Claim to fame in service: More than 4,300 F-16s have been built and the type is flown by the military services of 24 nations.

Mission: Roles of the Fighting Falcon range from air combat to Homeland Security patrols.

Performance and specifications: At altitude, the F-16 can reach speeds of Mach 2 or more than 1,500 mph, with a maximum weight of 48,000 pounds. Its range is 1,740 miles.

Main variants: Current versions of the F-16 include the Block 50/52 and the Block 60, each of which improves the avionics, sensors and weapons, and situational awareness compared with previous models.

Links:
USAF Thunderbirds

Lockheed’s F-16

See the gallery at top for more airplanes.

Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15

Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15
(Illustrations by Harry Whitver)

How to recognize: Though sometimes mistaken for its nemesis, the F-86, the MiG has a larger vertical tail. Its tailplanes ride high; whereas a Sabrejet’s tailplanes ride low, close to the fuselage. (So close are the two fighters in appearance that F-86 pilots in Korea sometimes shot down friendly aircraft believing them to be MiGs.)

Claim to fame at airshows: MiG-15s and -17s sometimes perform mock dogfights with F-86 Sabres.

Claim to fame in service: The MiG-15 could climb faster and higher than its arch rival from the USAF, the F-86, but the American pilots often won the fight through better training in aerial combat. More than 12,000 MiG-15s were built by the Soviet Union and another 6,000 variants under license by other nations, making it the most widely produced jet aircraft in history.

Mission: The Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 was designed by the Soviet Union to pick off USAF B-29 bombers at high altitude. During the Korean War, some of the most famous action in the air war were the dogfights between MiG-15s and North American F-86 Sabres escorting the B-29s.

Performance and specifications: Introduced in 1947, the MiG-15 can fly at 670 mph and at up to 51,000 ft. Its pressurized cockpit seats only one pilot. Wingspan is 33 ft and 1.5 inches. Maximum weight is 11, 270 pounds.

Main variants: The MiG-15bis (“second”) with an improved engine and more weapon hardpoint attachments. The two-seat trainer, called the MiG-15UTI.

Links:
National Air and Space Museum

Boeing F/A-18 Hornet

Boeing F/A-18 Hornet
(Illustrations by Harry Whitver)
How to recognize: Twin vertical tails, canted outward; short, slightly swept (as opposed to straight) wings.

Claim to fame at airshows: In ultra-precise formation flight, U.S. Navy Blue Angels fly so close together that their wing tips come within three feet of one another.

Claim to fame in service: Blue Angels have been performing since 1946 when they began as a three-ship team of Grumman F6F Hellcats, and with each generation have transitioned to the current flagship model flown by the U.S. Navy.

Mission: The F/A-18 Hornet replaced three types of aircraft that retired in the 1990s: the F-4 Phantom II and A-7 Corsair II, as well as the A-6 Intruder. As such, the F/A-18 fills the roles of air superiority, fighter escort, suppression of enemy air defenses, reconnaissance, forward air control, close and deep air support, and day and night strike missions. Operates from either a land base or aircraft carriers.

Performance and specifications: With one or two seats, fighter is powered by twin engines each with up to 22,000-lb thrust, for a combat thrust-to-weight ratio of greater than one. Combat radius is more than 500 nautical miles, and the models E/F can carry more than 17,500 pounds of external ordnance while flying at Mach 1.6 at higher than 36,000 ft. The Blue Angels version can reach Mach 1.7 or 1,200 mph.

Main variants: First F/A-18 models entered service with the US Navy and Marine Corps in 1982 as the F/A-18A/B Hornet, followed by the F/A-18C/D Hornet, F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, and EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft. Each generation has achieved more survivability, better avionics, and more flexible payloads.

Links:
Blue Angels

FAS Hornet Page

Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor

Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor
(Illustrations by Harry Whitver)
How to recognize: Twin vertical tails canted outward, broad back, gold-tinted cockpit canopy, modified delta wing.

Claim to fame at airshows: Stands on its tail, tips over backward into a loop within a box of airspace not much larger than itself, winks at the crowd by opening and closing its bomb bay doors.

Claim to fame in service: The F-22 helped demonstrate the technologies of fifth-generation fighters, with its unprecedented agility and a supercruise speed greater than Mach 1.5 without afterburner.

Mission: The Raptor is a multi-mission fighter; among its missions are intelligence gathering, surveillance, reconnaissance, and electronic attack.

Performance and specifications: The F-22 can takeoff at 83,500 pounds and fly at Mach 2 with its afterburner, and equipped with two external fuel tanks sustain a range of 1,600 nautical miles. Its two F119-PW-100 engines produce 35,000 pounds of thrust and are fitted with two-dimensional thrust nozzles, which can be positioned to help the Raptor fly tight maneuvers.

Main variants: The Raptor was produced in its original version until May of 2009, after 187 units had been completed.

Links:
Lockheed’s F-22

F-22 Raptor

FAS Raptor Page

North American F-86F Sabre

North American F-86F Sabre
(Illustrations by Harry Whitver)

How to recognize: Scoop nose with a pronounced beak on the upper edge of the intake, swept wings and tailplanes, round fuselage, and a large curved and frameless glass cockpit.

Claim to fame at airshows: F-86s often fly in formation with warbids of all eras in U.S. Air Force Heritage Flights.

Claim to fame in service: By the end of the Korean conflict, the Sabre was credited with downing 792 MiGs while losing only 76 of its own type, a victory ratio of 10 to 1. Though the Mikoyan-Gurevic (MiG-15) held cannons while the Sabre was armed with machine guns, the tactical training of USAF pilots, many of whom were hardened in World War II on earlier types of aircraft, helped them soar above the Chinese and North Korean enemy.

Mission: The F-86 was the first swept-wing jet fighter of the USAF and first flew on October 1, 1947, destined to become a day-fighter. With later improvements and variations, the Sabre became an all-weather intercept and then a fighter-bomber.

Performance and specifications: Weighing up to 13, 791 pounds fully armed and loaded, the Sabre could reach 685 mph and a combat ceiling of 49,000 ft. Its six .50-caliber machine guns and eight five-inch rockets served as a calling card for its load of 2,000 pound of bombs.

Main variants: More than 5,500 variants of the Sabre were built for 20 nations beginning with the XF-86 prototype through the model H, with the TF-86F trainer offering two seats. First flight of the production F-86A was in May of 1948, and that September 15 a world speed record of 670.9 mph was set with the model. Its all-weather interceptor variant was the model D, and its most common version the F with 2,500 copies.

Links:
Sabre Pilots

AF Fact Sheet

Warbird Alley

Boeing AV-8B Harrier

Boeing AV-8B Harrier
(Illustrations by Harry Whitver)
How to recognize: Enormous half-circle intakes flanking the fuselage; drooping wings; loud. Earplugs mandatory.

Claim to fame at airshows:
Uses its vertical takeoff and hovering ability to face the crowd at low altitude and bow.

Claim to fame in service: The AV-8B Harrier’s ability to take off vertically or perform a short takeoff and landing (V/STOL) allows it be deployed with ground units has earned it the nickname, Jump-jet.

Its engine nozzles can pivot through an arc of 110 degrees, so that its thrust can help it to take off vertically or can swing to the rear to produce its forward speed. If you see the Harrier parked on the ramp, you may see this degree of motion marked on its fuselage.

Mission: The AV-8B single seat Vertical/Short Takeoff and Land (V/STOL) aircraft has served as the primary close air support, intermediate range intercept, and attack mission fixed-wing aircraft for the US Marine Corps, as well as for the Spanish and Italian navies. The AV-8B has seen service in the Persian Gulf for Desert Storm, Somalia with both the U.S. and Italian AV-8Bs, and Bosnia for peacekeeping operations. The Harrier can deploy to and operate from aircraft carriers.

Key Contractors or Manufacturers: McDonnell Douglas Aircraft (airframe), Rolls-Royce (Pegasus powerplant) First model introduced: 1985

Performance and Specifications: Maximum airspeed of AV-8B: 550 KCAS Maximum range: 900 nm Able to carry up to 9,000 lbs of ordnance on seven stations, such as the Mk 83 1,000-lb GP bomb; GBU-12 500-lb LGB, GBU-16 1,000 LGB, CBU-99/100 Cluster Bomb Units, and 2.75" and 5" rockets.

Main variants: The AV-8B, GR.Mk 7, and Mk 9, and TAV-8B. Empty operating weight of the AV-8B is 6,336 kg. Maximum takeoff weight of the AV-8B including its fuel, stores, weapons, ammunition and a water-injection system for the engines is 14,061 kg.

Links:
Nalls Aviation

FAS Harrier Page

Extra 330SC

Extra 330SC
(Illustrations by Harry Whitver)
How to recognize: Low-wing monoplane. Aerobatic monoplanes all look alike: thin wings with symmetrical airfoils, sleek fuselages, tapered vertical tails. The easiest way to tell them apart is by the performer’s paint scheme.

Claim to fame at airshows: Michael Goulian has painted his Castrol Aviator version in the sponsor’s trademark lime green, with a red-tipped tail and nose cone.

Claim to fame in service: The Extra family of aircraft is one of the most successful piston designs in aerobatic competition.

Mission: Aerobatic competition and display, particularly for maneuvers placing a high stress on the airframe.

Performance and specifications: The airframe can take up to 10g’s plus or minus, Goulian can roll the Extra 330SC at 380 degrees per second. A 350-hp Lycoming Thunderbolt IO-580 propels the aircraft to 260 mph, with its carbon fiber wings 24.6 ft wide and a steel tube fuselage. Gross takeoff weight of the model 300L is 2,095 pounds, and it can climb at 3,200 ft per minute (fpm).

Main variants: Walter Extra of Germany is a premiere designer of aerobatic competition aircraft, who has produced at least five models numbered from the -200 to the -500 series. Besides this basic family, competitors and air show performers have made personal modifications that result in new model numbers or designations.

Links:
Mike Goulian

Extra Aircraft

North American P-51 Mustang

North American P-51 Mustang
(Illustrations by Harry Whitver)

How to recognize: Long nose, low wing, and big air scoop faired under the fuselage, just aft of the wings.

Claim to fame at airshows: Frequently featured in U.S. Air Force Heritage Flights, the Mustang also stars in a three-ship aerobatic act known as the Horsemen.

Claim to fame in service: The P-51 became known as the “little friend” to long-range bomber crews on daylight strikes into hostile territory in World War II, with its quick, nimble response to enemy intercepts.

Mission: Bomber escort fighter, as well as low-level close ground support, earning some 4,590 air kills and 4,131 ground kills in World War II.

Performance and specifications: Initial models ran 32.35 feet long and weighed 6,280 pounds empty, cruising at 300 to 325 mph with the later and most powerful variants reaching 487 mph at full gallop 487 mph, and a service ceiling that peaked at 41,600 ft to maneuver atop enemy bombers.

Main variants: More than 15,000 units were built from 1940 through 1945. Model P-51D/K was the most numerous, with its iconic bubble canopy and brutally powerful Rolls-Royce Merlin V-12 engine which replaced the Allison beginning with the Model B/C. Incremental enhancements to powerplant, armament and avionics were made to successive models, before its hull was substantially lightened and 90 percent of the original parts updated or replaced to form the model H. A prototype model P-51G was tested and soon after the models L and M, but the war wound to a close and the variants were not built.

Links:
P-51 Mustang

The Horsemen

Interstate Cadet

Interstate Cadet
(Illustrations by Harry Whitver)
How to recognize: High-wing, two-seat, light monoplane.

Claim to fame at air shows: Kent Pietsch’s joyful, power-off aerobatic routine in a sunny yellow Jelly Belly-sponsored Cadet. The routine ends with the pilot landing on a ramp fixed to the top of a speeding RV camper.

Claim to fame in service: The Pietsch sons continue the air show legacy begun by their father Al in 1968.

Mission: A family-oriented comedy routine as well as an aerobatic display at air shows.

Performance and specifications: The original S1 prototype was powered by a 50 hp Continental engine, but soon upgraded to a 65 hp model. Around 320 Interstate Cadets were built between 1941 an ’42, using a welded steel tube fuselage, a spruce wood wing with metal ribs, and a fabric covering. Cruise speed of 98 mph, range of 380 miles, maximum takeoff weight of 1,250 pounds.

Main variants: The Interstate Cadet S-1 was flown in World War II and called the L-8A, and in the 1970s a variant of the model S-1B2 was certificated for bush flying and called the Arctic Tern.

At air shows, while Kent flies the Cadet, Warren Pietsch flies classic and gyroscopic aerobatics in a 1946 Taylorcraft with custom-clipped wings. Warren also performs in his homebuilt machine that he calls the Schnortzenzummer.

Links:
Pietsch Airshows

Twin Beechcraft 18

Twin Beechcraft 18
(Illustrations by Harry Whitver)
How to recognize: Twin piston engines, tapering flat-top fuselage and dolphin nose, twin vertical tails connected by a broad elevator, tubular steel fuselage, tail-dragging landing gear.

Claim to fame at airshows: In a black and crimson Beech 18, Matt Younkin moves from gentle barrel rolls into screaming dives and fluid yet precise loops. At some shows, a night display with strobe lights turns the former corporate transport into a flaming phantom.

Claim to fame in service: The Beechcraft 18 has earned a reputation as one of the most versatile and adaptable airframes and one of the longest production runs, with more than 9,000 copies produced from 1937 to 1969.

Mission: The basic Beech 18 has been adapted as a military trainer and called the C45; served as a corporate executive transport; light cargo hauler; ski plane; airline feeder; and air ambulance, among many other roles.

Performance and specifications: Models range from the Super H18with a cruising speed of up to 191 kts and a rate of climb of 1,400 ft/min, to the Turboliner that cruises at 243 kts and climbs at 1,520 ft/min. Its basic empty weight is about 5,845 pounds and its service ceiling 24,000 ft. With its maximum payload, two-man crew and up to nine passengers the Beech 18 can fly for up to 300 nm.

Main variants: Models C through H for civilian use, C45 and variants for military use, and a number of versions with more powerful engines, reinforcements for special missions, or custom interiors whether for luxury or for use in medical evacuation.

Links:
Matt Younkin Air Shows

Airliners.net

National Air and Space Museum

Waco UPF-7 (PT-14 trainer)

Waco UPF-7 (PT-14 trainer)
(Illustrations by Harry Whitver)
How to recognize: Open-cockpit biplane with wings staggered fore and aft and connected by struts and flying wires; round engine, usually cowled.

Claim to fame at airshows: Kyle Franklin painted his UPF-7 Mystery Ship black and white, with rounded flames and a skull-and-crossbones on the upper wing and tail; he replaced the 220hp engine with a 450-hp monster. He reinforced struts and flying wires for muscular loops, twists, nose-overs, rolling vertical climbs, inverted flat spins, and tail slides.

Mission: The Waco “F” series of biplanes followed the company’s line introduced in 1927, the “O,” and with its lighter airframe allowing the same performance with a smaller engine, became popular in general aviation for both touring and sport flights. A tandem-cockpit version was chosen by the Civilian Pilot Training Program to aid military preparedness from 1938-44.

Performance and specifications: With a crew of one and the capacity to carry at least one passenger or trainee, the basic UPF-7 has a maximum speed of 128 mph and range of 400 miles while flying at up to 14,800 ft.

Main variants: At least a dozen variations of the “F” were introduced throughout the 1930s, from the 125-hp model INF with a Kinner engine, to versions with a Warner Scarab engine, Continental, or Jacobs powerplant and with modifications to the width of the fuselage and height of the vertical tail. In 1986, the Waco Classic Aircraft company revived the line with its powerful YMF-5 model and introduced the latest unit.

Links:
Waco “Mystery Ship”

National Waco Club

Airliners.net

Pitts Special

Pitts Special
(Illustrations by Harry Whitver)
How to recognize: Biplane; bungee landing gear; compact fuselage.

Claim to fame at airshows: Since 1949, when Betty Skelton performed in her Pitts Special Little Stinker, the Pitts has been a pilot’s favorite, flying more aerobatic displays than any other light piston aircraft. Jacquie Warda has picked up the baton in her red, white, and blue Pitts S-1T Red Eagle.

Claim to fame in service: The original Pitts Special S-1 introduced by Curtis Pitts in 1945 helped to enable the modern generation of piston-powered aerobatic airplanes, with its high maneuverability and simple instrumentation.

In 1949 and ’50, the Pitts Special Little Stinker was flown by Betty Skelton to win the Feminine International Aerobatic Championship. Her aircraft is now on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum.

Mission: Precise aerobatics in a small box of airspace for display or competition.

Performance and specifications: The S-1C is only 15.46 ft long, and its upper wing span just 17.33 ft. Empty weight is 650 pounds, and its gross takeoff weight is 1,150 pounds. With a 180-hp engine it can climb at 2,650 ft/minute and roll at 180 degrees per second.

Main variants: At least 10 variations to the S-1 tinker with the shape of its wings, such as the “flatwing” or “roundwing” models; the power of its engine up to 200 hp; and the placement and number of ailerons. The Pitts S1-SS has four ailerons, to allow high rates of roll with a light stick force, and good centering, and is often used in championship aerobatic contests. The S-2 series offers two seats.

Links:
Jacquie B Airshows

Betty Skelton and “Little Stinker”

“Little Stinker” Restoration

Steen Aero Lab

North American T-6 (AT-6) Texan

North American T-6 (AT-6) Texan
(Illustrations by Harry Whitver)
How to recognize: Snub nose, low wing, greenhouse canopy, often in its original silver coat.

Claim to fame at airshows: The four-ship Aeroshell Aerobatic Team flies flies a program that shows why the T-6 was chosen as the primary trainer for pilots headed for aerial combat: easy and quick rolls, high bank turns, and impressive rate of climb.

Claim to fame in service: Several hundred thousand pilots in 34 nations trained in some variant of the T-6, beginning with nearly all of the Allied countries of World War II through the Korean War. Though far slower than a fighter, the Texan could provide training in nearly any maneuver from the Immelmann to the snap roll, ground strafing to dogfights, to blind flight and reconnaissance. Its airframe and equipment were easy to maintain and repair.

Mission: Besides serving as a trainer, the Texan saw action in missions during World War II for both the US and its Allies, earning the nickname in various roles or countries as the Pilot Maker; Old Growler; Window Breaker; J-Bird (when flying as the SNJ); and the Mosquito (as a Korean war USAF LT-6G Forward Air Control aircraft).

Performance and specifications: Top speed of the T-6 Texan is 205 mph from its 550-hp air-cooled Pratt & Whitney Wasp engine, at 5,000 ft altitude. The Texan has retractable landing gear, and a 42-ft wingspan.

Main variants: First flight of the original AT-6 (AT means advanced trainer) Texan was on September 28, 1938, and more than 17,000 aircraft were eventually produced with some variation to the original. The model AT-6A refined the fuel tanks, The British flew the Texan and called it the Harvard, while the US Navy flew the aircraft under its own designation SNJ, the most common models being the SNJ-4, 5 and 6. In 1948, the designation AT-6 was changed to simply, T-6. In May 2000, the USAF introduced the T-6A Texan II for joint primary pilot training (JPPT).

Links:
Aeroshell Aerobatic Team

USAF Fact Sheet

Warbird Alley

Boeing Aircraft