Naval Air Facility El Centro Photocall
Naval Air Facility El Centro is a small base located in the southeastern corner of California just a short distance from the Mexican border. There are no units based there, rather squadrons cycle through to take advantage of the fantastic year-round flying conditions and the multiple ranges nearby for weapons and combat air training. There is also a fresnel lens optical landing system (FLOLS) with a simulated carrier flight deck at each end of Runway 08/26 for aviators to sharpen their skills ahead of qualifications or deployments.
Typically, twice each year the public affairs team at El Centro welcomes a group of photographers for a Photocall and I was fortunate to attend three of these events through the online group Fencecheck. Standing on the edge of the runway while Navy and Marine Corps aircraft takeoff and land is a thrilling experience for the senses as jet exhausts can be felt across your face and afterburners rumble in your chest. The access is almost unbelievable and produces stunning photographic results, especially since the weather was perfect during each of my visits.
It's amazing how easily one can be spoiled and take things for granted. Returning in 2016 I naturally had very high hopes for another wonderful day at El Centro and while the location and weather couldn't have been better, I was slightly disappointed that there were only six aircraft operating during our time on base. Luckily, we had lots of action from the Hornet from VMFA-323 as it conducted circuit training for much of the afternoon. As always it was a pleasure to be included in the event and I should have learned long ago to enjoy the moment, especially since I never know if a future opportunity will be possible.
It took a few years, but I made it back for another Photocall. On November 17, 2015 I was part of a much larger group than the one I joined in 2012 and we had been moved back from the edge of the runway to a distance of about 25 feet. Neither of these changes affected my enjoyment of the day as we were allowed to venture thousands of feet along the runway resulting in plenty of space to take extraordinary photos. AH-1Z Vipers and UH-1Y Venoms added a nice rotary wing element to the day while VMAT-203 were on base with their Harriers, including a pair of TAV-8Bs marking the first time I had seen the rather weird looking two-seat version of the jet. The Navy presence was highlighted by VAQ-129 Growlers that did a lot of flying during our afternoon session and of course lots of T-45C Goshawks training future fighter and attack pilots for both services.
On October 24, 2012 I had the pleasure of experiencing a Photocall at El Centro for the first time. Standing on the edge of the runway while Prowlers, Hornets, Super Hornets, Goshawks and a KC-130J departed and returned was one of the most incredible experiences I have ever had. Runway 26 was in use due to the northwest wind which actually pushed the exhaust towards us as the aircraft passed, creating an almost overwhelming sense of smell and feel from the burnt jet fuel while making clear shots of afterburners more challenging. I will never forget the feeling from the VFA-106 Super Hornets as three of them lined up at the button of the runway. When the closest jet powered up, 44 000 pounds of thrust was such a short distance away that the force could be felt through my entire body. Other highlights included the fully loaded Hornets from VMFA-115 and VMFA(AW)-533 and formation takeoffs by both two-ships of VAQ-129 Prowlers. After seeing pictures from this event for years it was tremendous to be included.