NAF El Centro Visit February 2014

Following my day at MCAS Yuma I continued onward to El Centro California to visit NAF El Centro for a couple of days. Nestled in the heart of Southern California’s Imperial Valley NAF El Centro was commissioned on May 1, 1946 -- prior to that being a Marine Corps Air Station and since then having had several different names such as Navel Air Facility, Naval Auxiliary Landing Field, Navel Air Station and the National Parachute Test Range. Today, NAF El Centro provides the highest level of training for active and reserve aviation units offering support to visiting Marine, Navy, U.S Army and Air Force units utilizing it’s vast target ranges for their weapons and combat air training.

Because no active units are actually based at the Navel Air Station El Centro can be a bit of a “mixed bag” of sorts when it comes to what to expect there. With it’s close proximately to many other military installations and it’s vast offering of live weapon ranges it’s not uncommon for many different types to stop by for approaches or for “gas n goes”. The couple days that I was there VT-7 “Eagles” where temporarily stationed there with their T-45 Goshawks. The T-45’s flew regularly through out the day beginning with the first hops at 07:30. VAQ-129 was also there with their Prowlers on one of their last Carrier Qualification Detachments. The Prowlers flew 3 times a day beginning at 10:00, 14:00 and 16:00. It was nice to see the Prowlers as they are beginning to be phased out and won’t be around for to much longer. Matter of fact, I was notified by a VAQ-129 squadron member who happened to be staying at the same hotel that Prowler “910” would be retired upon their return from El Centro.

NAF El Centro is also the winter home to the USN Blue Angels. From roughly January to March the Blues fly twice a day for 6 days a week gradually reducing altitude and formation separation. While I was there the team was still practicing over the range only flying a few manoeuvres over the base after getting airborne before heading to the range for their full program. NAF El Centro is known for it’s large hay bails sitting directly at the approach end of runway 30. When standing on top of one of these they give an elevated look right down the middle runway 30. Because the Blues typically depart runway 12 this offers what may be one of the best photo opportunities to capture the diamond takeoff. Four F-18’s roaring over your head at what must be less than 50 feet is an experience you won’t ever forget. I was quite pleased to be able to scratch being an “El Centro hay bailer” of my bucket list.

Other visiting aircraft consisted of Huey’s, C-2 Greyhounds, Cobra Gunships and several Miramar based Marine Hornets, one of which making an emergency landing taking the cable on runway 26. The Miramar based Hornet ("Snake One One") was part of a two ship flight working the range near El Centro when he suffered a fire in the starboard engine. Because of the ranges close proximity to NAF El Centro the Hornets where on station very quickly and orbited the airfield at 3,000 feet while running through their emergency check list. They then set up for an 8 mile straight in section approach with the second Hornet going around. "Snake One Two" then flew one visual pattern ensuring his wing man had safely exited the aircraft before returning to Miramar.

While not as busy as El Centro can typically get I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the station. I think it’s safe to say that NAF EL Centro almost always has something going on -- even more so if there’s a local exercise such as WTI going on nearby. With many other visiting photographers shooting at the base you’re guaranteed to be in good company while shooting a great variety of Navy, Marine and Air Force aircraft types.

report and photos Stuart Sanders