We made our 2nd annual trip to Las Vegas where Nicole attended the International Wedding & Portrait Photography Conference. I’m not a big fan of Vegas and wanted to avoid wandering up and down the strip for the six days we’d be there. A week before the trip, Dylan broke his right wrist skiing so our physical activities were somewhat limited (no mountain biking in the desert or tennis with Andre Agassi). A couple of nights before we left, I googled local activities and news stories and came across an article warning local residents about increased noise levels due to activity at Nellis Air Force Base, a large base on the north side of Las Vegas. A little reading revealed that “Red Flag” was just beginning at Nellis and we would be there right in the middle of it. “Red Flag” is a massive air combat exercise with all types of helicopters, jets and other planes that lasts about 2 weeks. Think of something like Top Gun school with not only United States military aircraft but also aircraft from other allied countries. It’s not a public airshow that provides grandstands for seating. There’s no ticket to purchase. You just need to find a good spot close to the base to park the car and catch of glimpse of the takeoffs and landings.
The Nellis website warned increased flights between noon and 5 PM. So on Sunday, Dylan and I drove out to watch the activity. I’d read that the best place to watch was across the street from the base at one of the entrances to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Big mistake! My googling failed to warn me of the NASCAR race also taking place on Sunday. About 5 miles from the base, we were stuck in traffic that was not moving. I soon realized we were part of a massive stream of cars heading towards the Las Vegas Motor Speedway and its 130,000+ seats. Red Flag was under the radar but NASCAR on Sunday appears to be popular. It was clear we were not going to be able to use the Vegas Speedway as a viewing area or even park anywhere close. So we turned around with plans to return on Monday.
Our morning routine was dropping Nicole off at the MGM and then heading over to Einstein Bros. for some bagels and coffee. Usually, the morning commercial air traffic brought the jets right over our heads as they landed at the Las Vegas airport directly across the street from our breakfast. It was during these morning breakfasts that Dylan decided he wants to be a pilot.
Luckily on Monday there was no traffic and we pulled into the empty Vegas Speedway parking lot at 11:45 AM. There was one other guy sitting in a parked car but that was it. So we sat and waited. And waited. About 45 minutes later, two F-35 jets came flying in but at the complete opposite end of the base. We were sitting at the wrong end of the runway! We jumped in the car and raced about 5 miles to the other side of the base in hopes of seeing other jets landing. That proved to be the wrong decision. It took us 20 minutes to navigate to the other end of the base. And as soon as we arrived we heard the unmistakable roar of fighter jets at the other end, the end we just left. We made another U-turn and decided to head back to the Vegas Speedway end and stay put. At around 1:30 PM, we started seeing Blackhawk helicopters flying overhead.
Then the Thunderbirds did a fly-by and some of the bigger support aircraft started to take off. Since it takes the larger planes longer to fly to the warzone, the support aircraft leave first. We also saw fueling tankers so the fighter jets could refuel in the air over the desert without having to return to base.
Around this time, a couple of vans pulled off the road next to us and about 2 dozen photographers unloaded. We started chatting and learned they were a group from Europe that had come all the way to Las Vegas this week to watch and photograph the aircraft. Around 2 PM, the fighter jets and B2 bombers started taking off. Each B2, which looked like a UFO when their landing gear was up, is estimated to cost about 1 billion dollars. The roar of the engines was loud even from where we stood. Probably around 30 jets blasted off including what looked like some Raptors. We had a great time enjoying the sites and sounds.
Around 2:30 we had seen and heard enough and were getting hungry so we gave a thunderous round of applause and headed back toward The Strip. It appeared most of the activity took place between 1:30 PM and 2:30 PM so keep that in mind if you want to watch the aircraft.
Later that night, we saw Recycled Percussion, a group of drummers that can play a beat on almost anything (ladders, paint cans, their own bodies and even upside down drums hanging from the ceiling). The worst part of the evening was the 20 minutes leading up to the show. As we entered the auditorium, every member of the audience was handed a pot or pan and a drumstick to use during the performance. You can imagine the noise a couple hundred people (adults and kids) can generate banging on pots and pans waiting for a show to start. A minute before the show started, one of the ushers asked if Dylan and I wanted to move from the rear to the front. Sure! And so she moved us to the very first two seats at the center of the stage. It was a fun show and we got a kick out of the “Random Cookie Break” when right during the middle of an act, “Random Cookie Break!” flashed on the screen and all the band members stopped playing and immediately started passing out freshly baked chocolate chip cookies to the entire audience.
Near the end of the show one of the drummers asked Dylan to go up on stage for one of the acts. With the spotlight on him, Dylan froze and wouldn’t stop shaking his head, a clear indication he had no interest to be on stage. Eventually when they realized even bribes were not going to do the trick, they said Dad would need to take his place. I didn’t get to play any drums but did win us a bag of M&M’s.
Tuesday, I had planned to drive to Indian Wells to watch some of the pro tennis matches with Dylan, but another 9 hours in the car didn’t sound too appealing so we opted for a UNLV basketball game. Our tickets got us into 2 afternoon games: Air Force vs. UNLV and then New Mexico vs. Colorado State. By the end of the first game (a blowout by UNLV), all that was on Dylan’s mind was the swimming pool back at the Excalibur. Unfortunately, we skipped watching my alma mater: Colorado State.
On Wednesday we wandered the shopping areas then all of us (Nicole too), went to see Penn and Teller. We enjoyed the show but thought they would reveal how each magic trick was performed. They only explained one trick yet kept reiterating there is nothing magical about magic. Much of it was part comedy and part magic. During the “Cut the Woman in Half” trick, we kept reassuring our wide-eyed 5 year old that it was not real.
After returning home from Vegas, it was only a few days before I left again for New York. I had a work trip to visit a new customer and that took me to the jail on Rikers Island. I only had to spend a few days in New York and it proved my most interesting business trip yet. Two days were spent on Rikers Island. Cell phones are not allowed so I don’t have any pictures to share. However, even without a camera, the images will be hard to forget. Passing through multiple security checkpoints. Walking the corridors between the blue painted lines on the floor while the inmates stood against the wall. Observing how the pharmacy dispenses and inmates receive their medications. Hearing the shouting matching between inmates and officers. And taking a look at the “Wall of Shame” that displays recently confiscated weapons found in the jail. The trip could not have been less interesting. Even the hotel room (of a certain size when the room door bangs into the bed when you open it) across the street from the Queensboro Plaza subway station was something to remember. The trip was one of those that cannot be replaced by WebEx and conference calls. Their needs are not all that much different than a normal behavioral health institution but the terminology and workflow is different enough that you have to see it to fully understand it. Just when work appears to be getting a little mundane, things get real interesting.