Well, the USA Pacific North West COAP trip was a complete blast! There really was something for everyone!

Report & Photos by Paul Ashenden

Day 1

We kicked off with an afternoon flight out of LHR to Seattle SeaTac airport via Delta Airlines A330. There was back to back movie time aplenty on this near 10Hr flight, the on board food wasn’t brilliant and the actual arrival was delayed by a go-around at a low level. Late stage of the approach, my first go around on a commercial airliner flight. We settled into the Hotel that evening and meet up with our Local US tour participant, So there were a total of 7 of us on the tour overall with a couple of local participants meeting up with the group at certain events. After an evening beer and chat we retired to try to let the body clock sort out the 8Hr time differential.

Day 2

As usual personal body clock fail… Up early and into the start of our travels, first point of call Renton Field. This is where Boeing has the Boeing 737 Max production line. We pitched up to several locations around the perimeter to view the activity onsite, with numerous 737 Max airframes seen at various stages of completion. Where feasible we managed to photograph a few.  

We noted that most of the new airframes were marked with exactly the same registration number, this was the allocated Test RegistrationI believe, ahead of painting and final registration allocation, the fuselages still in the supplied green colour from Spirit Aero Systems, bore their respective Airframe Serial Numbers.

Ironically, the brand new B737 Max that we saw going on a test flight was a Ryanair marked example. After capturing some images from the other side of the airfield we moved on in the afternoon to King CountyInternational Airport, where Boeing also has facilities, mostly used for the support of flight testing of the B777X and B737 Max at present. At one end of the airfield there was a Military delivery centre, where a Royal New Zealand Air Force P-8 was about to be delivered and a USAF KC-46. The Military delivery centre is actually sat next to the Boeing Museum of Flight, which was our next port of call.

Boeing’s Museum of Flight is simply a world class museum. Adorned with a Super Connie at the main entrance, the Museum is spread out over a fair about of real estate as you might expect and houses some very famous inhabitants.We spent the afternoon at leisure walking around the galleries taking the place in and capturing the exhibits, which were truly impressive such as the original 747 prototype. Numerous other large aircraft are housed under a very large roof covering externally and a B-52 immaculately restored residing outside the Museum near the rear parking lot.

The Museum itself is built actually around the original Boeing Production building Plant No1, and this historic site is available to tour, as part of the museum, this is the site where original Boeing aeroplanes were constructed with Wood, Fabric and Bracing wires, the internal galleries of the museum are impressive with the WW1 & WW2 galleries being stand outs for me although the SR-71 with a D-21 drone in the main gallery being hard to beat. As usual for a very crammed museum some of the exhibits are hard to capture due to the space confines,, but was a great way to start the trip. Once the day was nearing it close we ventured off back to Seattle to try to catch some floatplane movements, we pitched up to a great vantage point to see the Seattle Skyline as it turned out and very popular with the locals as point to relax and take in the sun and views.

Day 3

Up early on the road to Whidbey Island, part of the Puget Sound area and home to NAS Whidbey Island which present houses squadrons of P-3s, P-8s and EA-18G Growlers. We initially made our way to a beach vantage point where we waited for the day’s movements to commence. After watching the initial launches of a couple of P-8s and the first wave of Growlers in the distance, we noted they were using Rwy 25 for departures, so we relocated to try to catch some departures. We found a public road that parallels the runway and managed to catch a few of the Growlers lifting off. A rare P-3 had also started to circuit bash so we could capture this rapidly going out of service breed. After a good period at this location knowing that the Growlers would likely return to the same runway we relocated, due to light considerations to find an area where we could shoot the arrivals. We managed this and in this area we discovered several very large mature Eagles, several of them Bald Eagles using the same area. These were very impressive to watch in the wild, but to see no less eight of these masters of the air effortlessly cruising above us in relative close proximity was great.

As we hoped the growlers duly returned and we were able to capture these on approach. After seeking refreshments and a very welcome ice cream to cool off it was time to move on, we managed to photograph the NAS Whidbey Island gate guards a posed Intruder & Prowler, before finding a local Air Museum where we witnessed the Museums PBY Catalina in the process of being restored & painted.

We were soon on the road again and off to Paine Field we found the area where KC-46 tankers were being completed. Much to the delight of one of the COAP team this included an example of a Japanese machine in a glossier paint versus the standard USAF dark grey matt colour. We had hoped to visit the ex-Paul Allen Museum by the time the trip came around, but it had yet tore-open to the public - the collection has been sold and will be moving it some point when the new bespoke premises are completed.

We were also granted access to The Zero Factory! As we rapidly discovered, they were nearing the completion of a restoration programme for a genuine A6-M3 Type 32 Zeke/Zero. On the day we visited the aircraft had just had its initial engine runs and the small, dedicated team who undertook this 11-year restoration, were only too glad to show us the fruits of their labour. We were shown the process they had used to effectively created jigs/tooling and reverse engineer using original parts as patterns to make new airworthy parts where required.  

The original airframe had been rescued as a wreck from the Solomon Islands. We were told the aircraft wreck, when found, was effectively complete but had damaged having being put out of commission by liberating forces during the war. The team restoring the aircraft had also been responsible for restoring the Me262 that resides in the Paul Allen Collection amongst the many feats they had achieved. Very impressive and we all felt very privileged to have seen this unique restoration reaching the apex of the process, of its return to flight is not that far away now.

We then ventured further around Paine Field sadly we were just a tad to late to visit the Boeing Museum of Flight restoration facility, this site has a Comet in BOAC colours, it is presently in the process of restoration, we could partially view work in progress. On one of the nearby FBO ramps we noted a highly colourful MH-60R Seahawk of the 'Scorpions' HSM-49 US Navy adorning the ramp which can normally expect to support GA & BizJet movements. We also noted several temporarily stored new produced 777X airframes with weights on pylons awaiting engine installation at that end of the field. We rounded out the day by travelling to the Kenmore Air Floatplane base - a fantastic way to round out the day catching numerous Float planes operating in the glorious evening light, before we headed to our hotel via well-earned beer and food (which was excellent, as always on a COAP trip!).

Day 4

We travelled to the Heritage Flight Museum, Skagit Field, Burlington,WA. The museum holds regular Monthly Flying days during summer months, and we had been granted privileged airside escorted access to photograph the proceedings. One of our hosts on the day was a retired museum post holder and an ex-Brit and very keen photographer, who would join us later in tour too. We were also joined by another US Based COAP member photographer.

The Museum ran what I would describe as a small but perfectly formed Airshow event, flying the housed collection of aircraft. The Heritage Flight Museum was founded by the family of William (Bill) Anders - a former Apollo Astronaut – and there are links to spaceflight within the museum. Several of the collection aircraft also bear the name of Bill Anders on them as a reminder of the link, not least his first aircraft acquisition P-51 ‘Val-Halla’.

The flying display started with a South East Asian camo-marked AH1 Skyraider, ‘’Proud American’, followed by two T-34 polished natural metal Mentors. Then a display from x3 Harvards together, then a trio of period trainers displayed featuring a Stearman, PT19 Cornell and plus a T6 Harvard all in the colourful blue and yellow basic military training colours. The final display was the collection’s P-51 Mustang ‘Val-Halla’ and the AH1 Skyraider flying again. We all managed to get some great photos from several vantage points, afterwards we thanked our hosts for what had been a great day and ventured back to Paine Field dropping into the Boeing Shop, the future of flight complex, as we drove into the Airfield complex we passed the enormous building where Boeing is now building 777es and formerly the 747. The size the place is very impressive.

We also explored the site which allowed us to quickly view a 777X airframe in the static load test area, this is where the airframe will eventually be tortured to destruction as part of the proof loading certification checks. After a very enjoyable day we headed back to our hotel via a very welcome cool beer to accompany the evening meal.

Day 5

A long road trip today as we travelled south to Madras, Oregon. This was via what turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip for me, as we visited the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum located in Oregon. I knew before visiting it housed the Spruce Goose, but I hadn’t appreciated the depth of the collection in terms of the number of exhibits and the quality of what they are preserving, Upon Arrival we noted a Evergreen B747 that had put on top of the roof of a large water slide park building, not an everyday sight!

Upon arrival our group in the main museum hall, we were greeted by our host and allocated a specific time to gain access the Spruce Goose Cockpit, the sheer size of the Spruce Goose gets you as you enter the main building its simply vast and it dominates the space, making the other exhibits look very small and a PBY Catalina isn’t a small aeroplane for instance.

We split the group into two and had an escorted visit to the cockpit area. Our guide was very knowledgeable about the history of the project and gave some interesting insights into Howard Hughes personal traits that were such a feature of the project; an example of this was an air purifier/conditioning unit installed to supply the pilot's seat area.

The eight engine beast featured the most powerful radial engines ever produced with multiple banks of cylinders churning out the required horsepower. The engines our guide explained can be accessed from the rear by walking down the front spar access tunnel internally which possibly indicates just how big this aircraft actually is

After a well explained tour of the cockpit, we all were given the opportunity to sit in the L/H seat grasping that control column and 8 throttles, with the obligatory Howard Hughes style Hat made available for that perfect touch to finish the experience. Following the cockpit tour we had a brief tour of the aircraft interior followed by access to the restoration area where a Douglas Skyray in former NASA markings was in the process of restoration amongst the ongoing projects.

The hall with the Spruce Goose features numerous displays aplenty and these are very absorbing. There is a collection of rare airframes to complement the Spruce Goose, as the name suggests it’s an Air & Space Museum - the Space part of the Museum was where I ventured off to next and was an equally delighted was they had numerous well laid out exhibits to be enjoyed and photographed. There was another SR-71 for example, but a few exhibits in the hall such as a former East German AF marked MiG-23 and an A-10 were oddballs. There were the Space rocket sections and I thought the US Navy-marked Sea King displayed picking up an Apollo Capsule was particularly good.

Externally, the museum had several notable airframes on display, as well as the externally stored airframes awaiting restoration. These were all accessible for photography, with a Mohawk and former NASA Gulfstream II and a test Sabreliner, being the perhaps the stand outs. After a fruitful afternoon of photography, at this very notable museum, we were back on the road to make our way to our hotel in Madras, via an evening meal and beer on the road at the Mt Hood Brewery,

Day 6

We arrived at the airfield at Madras for the 8am meeting with our hosts at the Erickson collection. Before this trip I had never heard of this collection of aircraft, as we discovered most of the airframes in this world’s largest collection of privately owned historic aircraft are in fact airworthy or capable of flight. Our host initially gave us a quick tour of the hangars and some ground rules.

One of the gems of the collection is an Me109, this was in maintenance when we visited, with the cowlings removed, as it had original shaped cowls and exhaust ports. I had assumed the engine was therefore a Daimler Benz powerplant. This turned out to be incorrect the Erickson collection’s aircraft had an Allison powerplant installed. This was installed in such away that the original prop line of thrust as the original DB engine, was maintained. The Allison engines exhausts had been suitably modified to allow the original cowlings to be used, a very clever engineering solution. This may not be the purist's solution but it works and makes the powerplant easier for them to maintain.

During our time onsite besides the collections own B-17 ‘Ye old Pub’, we witnessed another B-17 with its wings removed. The inner Port & Starboard wings were placed into a dedicated jig to allow reworking of the wings so they meet the requirements of an FAA Issued AD that will cover all B-17s still capable of flight. We also witnessed the ongoing conversion of a Yak-3 for a customer to allow for a passenger to be carried, so the Erickson Collection’s engineering team are involved in some interesting projects.

During our visit, it was planned that two groups of three photographers a time would fly air-to-air photo flights using a Douglas SBD Dauntless! Actually this particular airframe is the world’s only airworthy A25 version, as the photo platform from the gunners rear facing seat position, with the target aircraft being an F4U still wearing its recent Devotion movie paint scheme & and the Collection’s P-40 wearing US Army markings with glorious shark's teeth. To enable this to happen smoothly we spent a good deal of time learning and rehearsing how to correctly board the Dauntless. The strap-in and deplane process was rehearsed very carefully as this would be have to be done with prop turning for least two photographers after the initial strap in and start. We were given free access throughout the day to the hangars to photograph the collection and the external flight line of stored aircraft.

During the day we witnessed the operation of a Erickson MD-83 Firebomber, just out of maintenance aircraft onsite, doing a water drop. The recently retired Erickson DC-7 firebombers were still stored onsite. In the afternoon a decision was made to postpone aerial flying today from a possible evening photo slot, as the weather had become very convective and some unseasonal rain storms had started in the afternoon. We ventured back into town to grab an evening meal/beer before heading back to airfield for a night shoot! Our hosts positioned the P-40 and the P-47 near the collection’s B-17 for us to get some images. Suffice to say this day turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip and I had not being flying yet!

Day 7

An early start in the hope of some A2A dawn light photography, whilst it was not raining there was a fair amount of cloud still hanging about so we waited to see if the heat would burn that layer off as it warmed up. We eventually started the flying off for the first three photographers around mid-morning with the Dauntless and F4U getting airborne and the Dauntless returning to do the hot photographer changes after 20-mins or so. After an hour plus the Dauntless and F4U returned to the field with a lowpass being the order of the day for the assembled photographers.

The Dauntless needed to be refuelled and those taking part in the second photo session went for a brief, with the pilots. With feedback from the first session, we ended up flying a figure 8 pattern to allow more dynamic images to be captured as the aircraft banked in the turns. I was the last to fly and crewing in was accomplished as per the brief and camera handed to me and headset on it was time for the off. My pilot taxied to our selected departure end and waited for a hole in the local traffic. Soon, we were off… The rear seat in the dauntless is basic & functional as you’d expect from a WW2 aircraft and you had to try ensure you were out of the slip stream. The aircraft also vibrated more than I had thought it would, it certainly climbed fast as our Dauntless pilot had suggested the pre-flight brief.

We quickly arrived at the designated play area and the Collection’s P-40 joined us, simply a “WOW!” moment. As part of the pre-flight brief we had been told to use clear hand signals to the pilot of the P-40 to guide him to where I wanted him. This involved putting your hands into the slip steam to a degree to clearly signal fwd/up/down/stop. This worked perfectly and I set about trying maximise the opportunity. Sadly the Headset & Mic set-up seemed drowned out by the noise and wasn’t really effective, so whilst the hand signal directions worked a treat, the agreed end of the session - an inflight break - came about with little heads up. It was still an amazing sight.

On landing and rolling down the runway, I was treated to the rare sight of the P-40 screaming down the runway towards me sat rear facing in the Dauntless as it did its low pass for the rest of the photographers another WOW moment!

Taxy in and shut down... Running through my head... "Aad I actually done that… Yes, another WOW!”. My Pilot in the Dauntless asked what I thought and I was almost speechless, as it was just so much fun to be that close to another aircraft for photography. I was crewed out by the team and I went to thank the Dauntless & P-40 pilot who had also done such a great job of putting the aircraft where I wanted, and we successfully debriefed.

After thanking our hosts at Erickson Collection we were off on the road again this time to the north to be in striking range of the Rimrock Mountains as the last 3 days were to be filled with us trying to capture low level aircraft, we meet up with our US-based contacts who would be joining us.

Day 8

On the road early and off to the Rimrock area, we parked up and duly walked/hiked as a group to the spot required. This for me turned out to be more than a tad challenging for me as I freely admit I’m not the fittest person as I spend far too much time desk bound, however with the assistance and patience of  the team and plenty of rest breaks, we all made it to the required point - I guess about 900-1000ft about the lake. We sat and awaited our prey. Our American friends had radio frequency monitoring available and we knew that there were dedicated slots that were/had been booked by aircraft to flypast our location.

As it turned out we had a total of three aircraft use the low-level route. The first pass came as a spaced pair and the second as a singleton. As the day drew on, we entertained by the antics of a small Chipmunk who was quite brave running around us looking for scraps of food!

Day 9

On the road to another location for a meet up in a store car park where we bought daily provisions and we then met up with a larger group - I guess there were over 30 of us present in total, and our host guide explained the running order of the day.

The plan was that the USAF F-35 team and the USN Growler Demo Team were transiting to the area. After the successful shoot, the afternoon became increasingly warm and hazy - we were told was smoke from Wildfires to the west of our location.

Day 10

Off into to wilds again to try a couple of other photo spots, the first turned out to be very difficult as we were near the highway and the traffic noise made it virtually impossible to hear incoming aircraft. I think all of us missed the first aircraft past our location, so we headed for the other location where we managed to capture a Growler pair suitably tooled up with ECM pods and Harm missiles from this view point. We called it quits and retired for a cool beer, and said saying goodbye to our excellent & knowledgeable American friends and made our way back to our hotel to pack the bags.

Day 11

Going home day, we set off back to Seattle calling in initially at King County International Airport where we managed to catch RCAF long nose Dash 8 'City of Winnipeg' Sqn in its striking Dark Blue Gloss finish. We then headed off to Joint Base Lewis-McChord. We were very lucky that our American tour member held a base access pass and was able to sponsor us for access to the base, where we went to capture the immaculately preserved Heritage Park.

There were some real gems in this on-base preserved collection, such as the striking Catalina, B-18 Bolo, B-23 Dragon, and the recently renovated C-130E in a period MAC South-East Asia scheme and a C-124C Globemaster II in dayglo markings. All were quickly captured as our time stateside had run out, so we finally checked in for our return flight at SeaTac. Upon getting back to Heathrow we said our group goodbyes and I returned home to a much missed cuppa and started to download the many images I took!

What I take away from the trip was it had awesome content. I won’t be surprised if this trip comes up again as they are still fresh opportunities to tweak it afresh, such as sampling the ex-Paul Allen collection and the Boeing Museum of Flight Restoration facility. Plus there’s the possibility of tying in the some more local airshows. The Boeing Museum of Flight and the Evergreen Air & Space Museum were frankly brilliant and the Erickson Collection will offer further COAP opportunities, due the wonderful choice of warbirds they look after.