The night of 1 October 2017 is a date which will forever stand out in the minds of thousands. No one could have imagined that the Route 91 Harvest Fest would be the backdrop of anything other than fond memories of warm summer evenings, cold drinks, great music, and even better friends. We all were shown differently that night, and the impact had on the community of Las Vegas continues to be felt–and will continue to be for some time to come.
On the 17th of October, barely more than two weeks after the incident, I received a phone call from a good friend, asking for assistance with a special project.
“Hey, bro, can you help us out?” I was asked. ” We need a paint scheme designed–actually two.”
As most of you know, we’ve enjoyed a certain degree of success as it applies to commemorative paint schemes. In 2015, we designed one for the 50th Anniversary of the Wild Weasel mission, which adorned the Wing Commander’s jet at Shaw AFB for two years. This year, we had a hand in refining the chosen design for the Centennial Celebration of the 36th Fighter Squadron at Osan AB.
It’s a body of work we are immensely proud of, as we have developed very strong relationships with several units over the past few years. They’re like family to us, so when leadership at Nellis Air Force Base reached out for help on a project, we were eager to get involved.
The basic concept was to develop a paint scheme which honored the victims of Route 91 and the city of Las Vegas, as well as celebrate the 70th Anniversary of the U.S. Air Force. We were also informed there would be a static display aircraft, as well as a jet actually flying in the upcoming Aviation Nation Air and Space Expo. Two aircraft, each a different MDS, commemorating two different events of great magnitude–and a paint scheme on each to reflect both.
No big deal, right?
Thanks to good timing, two of us–myself and our Art Director, Ken Lustig–were in Las Vegas, and we were able to sit on on the meeting with artists pulled from the various Aircraft Maintenance Units on base, as well as the corrosion shop–whose technicians would ultimately be applying the schemes the group of us came up with.
The first aircraft we were given was a specific F-15A which normally functions as a maintenance training platform for the Eagle Keepers on base. Thankfully, the Eagle is a very large jet, with plenty of surface area to get creative. The flying aircraft would be an Block 42 F-16CM from the Weapons School, one slated to go into the paint shop anyway–which would make it easy to remove our collective design once the show was over.
For those of you unfamiliar, there is a proverbial mountain of Air Force Instructions on where, how, and to what extent, someone may paint a combat-coded aircraft. Certain things are resolute and need to remain in place. Other things have a little bit of flex, but not much. Still other things reside in the gray area of “It doesn’t say we can’t,” or “It would be cool, but we probably shouldn’t.” There are only specific types of paint, and specific colors authorized. Even with all of that, there are waivers upon waivers upon permissions which go all the way up the chain to the MAJCOM for approval.
Get It Done
Fortunately, in this particular instance, the design team had a one-star and a two-star who fully supported the initiative: “Get it done. We’ll worry about the paperwork.”
Our biggest limiting factor was time. We had, more or less, 24 hours to come up with an agreed-upon design which matched the vision of 57th Wing and Warfare Center leadership. Driving the time limitation was the number of hours required to sand, mask, and paint each individual aircraft, as well as apply the “wrap” graphics we’d need. The F-15, being as large of an aircraft as it is, would take the most time.
One of the best and most miraculous parts of the design process was being able to incorporate each individual artist’s ideas and design elements into the finished product. At the end of that first day, we had a workable design for the aircraft, both of which brought smiles to the faces of leadership–definitely a good sign of being on the right track.
Inevitably, changes needed to be made for the sake of time, ease of application, and the overall “message” being conveyed. It’s hard to address the magnitude of an event like that while trying to be sensitive to the needs of those left behind, at the same time trying to signify the strength of a community’s resolve, and the partnership between Las Vegas and Nellis Air Force Base.
It was a daunting task, which the entire team handled with aplomb and the professionalism you would expect. We all love this community, to varying degrees and certainly for different reasons, and the desire to show our support for the cause is what allowed everything to fall into place as quickly as it did.
The morning of 10 November 2017 was absolutely gorgeous: sunny, calm, and hardly a cloud anywhere. It was rehearsal day for Aviation Nation, and I was afforded the opportunity to come out to the base that day and see the finished result of our labors in person.
As we’d talked about in the meeting, the Eagle was sitting in front of the Thunderbird hangar on the flightline, nose into the sun. It was quiet at that early hour, so I had the airplane to myself for a few minutes. I walked around it, taking in all the details. The corrosion shop on base did a fantastic job of turning the vision into reality, and in such a short amount of time.
The opening act of the show was accentuated by the presence of the “Vegas Strong” F-16, which made several passes in front of the crowd. The most dynamic pass was the classic short approach to an early exit–known in airshow parlance as the “Banana Pass.” With the engine in full afterburner, “Tron” brought the jet around the corner with a bag full of knots, showing the topside design to the crowd in thunderous fashion.
By looking around at show attendees, it was apparent the design team’s work was having the desired effect, and leadership was very, very pleased with the end result. Later in the morning, all of the available members of the design team gathered next to the commemorative F-15A. We were congratulated by the Commander of Air Combat Command, General Michael Holmes, who made a surprise trip to Nellis for the event. Also present was the U.S. Air Force Warfare Center commander, Major General Peter Gersten, and the commander of the 57th Wing, Brigadier General Jeannie Leavitt–our two biggest allies in getting the jets done in time.
What It All Means
“We have some healing to do, too. The passion and the honor of the paint team and design crews as they put this airplane together piece by piece, and scrubbed it piece by piece with meticulous detail, was all based on the honor of being able to give back something to the community,” said Major General Gersten as he addressed a pool of local reporters.
The most moving part of the day, at least for me, was watching the families of those affected by that final night of Harvest Fest walk up to the jet and just gaze at it. Seeing tears stream down their faces, seeing the gratitude they expressed to the airmen involved, and seeing the number of photos taken of the airplane was proof positive we’d done a great thing, and for the right reasons. We can only hope our efforts will continue to have a positive impact on the Las Vegas community as it recovers.
We are…Vegas Strong.
Featured Photo: “Blitz” flies the Vegas Strong F-16CM over Las Vegas with Mandalay Bay casino in the background. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Tech. Sgt. Christopher Boitz)