What It's Like Flying With The US Navy's Elite Blue Angels
The author's POV during the echelon pass portion of his flight with the Blue Angels. (Photo: Ward Carroll)
The Blue Angels' high level of precision begins nearly 90 minutes before the six gleaming F/A-18 Hornets take to the skies, and when Blue Angel number one — the commanding officer — announces the start of the preflight brief, banter between the officers ceases and the team puts on the collective game face.
This week the Team is borrowing the hangar spaces of a fleet Hornet squadron that's currently deployed, but the set-up of the ready room has been modified significantly from that normally seen in a fleet squadron. Instead of having a room full of the classic metal and faux leather chairs arranged theater-style facing a large dry-erase board at one end, the pilots are seated in high backed executive chairs around a large conference table.
The support staff – the supply officer, the maintenance officer, the flight surgeon, and the public affairs officer among others – line the walls (also seated in executive chairs) forming a ring around the core team of jet pilots – Blue Angels 1 through 6. The rest of the pilots scribe imaginary lines along a Google Earth print outs of the airfield and surrounding area while Blue Angel No. 1 – commonly called "The Boss" – goes through the sequence of events from marching to the jets through the four-plane diamond takeoff and into the first moves of the airborne routine.
Without warning the team suddenly pushes back from the conference table and lowers their chairs. Each pilot hunches over, gripping an imaginary stick with his right hand and throttle with his left. Their heads tilt in the same directions they'll face while flying close formation during the flight. Their eyes narrow in what looks to be a Zen-like trance as the Boss goes through his radio cadence.
"Up . . . we . . . go," the Boss chants. "A . . . little . . . more . . . pull. Easing . . . power. Easing . . . more . . . power. A . . . little . . . pull. Rolling out." The atmosphere is generally like that of a church congregation at prayer with the Boss playing the role of priest. Then suddenly the team comes out of the trance, pops up in their chairs, and moves back to the table.
After reviewing the next maneuvers in the show sequence, they push back once again and go back into the role playing – the Zen state – as the Boss again sings his radio commands. The brief ends with other members of the Team briefing items required by their secondary roles. The supply officer briefs the weather. The maintenance officer briefs the field conditions and which runway they'll most likely use for takeoff. And just like a regular fleet squadron, the pilots review an "emergency procedure of the day" and any other safety of flight items that might be germane.
The main brief ends and the support staff along with the C-130 "Fat Albert" crew files out, but only after shaking each pilot's hand. One can sense that these traditions aren't arbitrary. They underwrite the intangibles that surround the Blue Angels' mission, one that's not reckless but inherently hazardous nonetheless.
After a short van ride from the hangar to the flight line, the Blue Angels march over to man up, peeling off in front of their respective jets in a 90-degree pivot at each Hornet's nose. Each gets in without a lot of fanfare. The pilots apply electrical power to their jets, and after a quick radio check the canopies come down. They taxi to the duty runway in numerical order, waving and giving the thumbs up to the enthusiastic crowd as they pass.
Soon they're in position for takeoff. The Boss calls over the radio: "Let's run 'em up . . . smoke, on . . . off brakes now . . . burners ready now . . ." and 1 through 4 are on their way down the runway. They're barely off the ground when No. 4 slides from the right wing into the slot as the four airplanes simultaneously raise their landing gear.
Then it's "up . . . we . . . go" into the vertical for the first part of what they call the "Diamond Half Squirrel Cage" which is basically a four-plane Half Cuban Eight. The weather is beautiful so the team does the "high" version of the show, which allows them to perform all of their vertical moves in their entirety.
The Squirrel Cage is followed by a few other diamond moves: the 360, the roll, the aileron roll, and the dirty (gear down) loop. Then it's time for some upside down action, what they call the "Double Farvel" – a level pass down the show line with Blue Angels No. 1 and 4 inverted the whole time. The Boss transmits "hit it!" and No. 4 mirrors him in putting the Hornet on its back.
From there the four-plane does some echelon moves – a parade pass followed by a roll. Then Blue Angel No. 5 joins the formation for a line-abreast loop. To this point there has been some G on the airplanes but nothing very taxing. That is about to change with what they call the "break out" maneuvers.
The Low Break Cross, the Fleur De Lis, and the Loop Break Cross all involve the diamond separating, crossing along various axes, and then quickly rendezvousing back into the diamond. The beginning and end of those moves means lots of G. Fighting off the G forces is a lot of work, like the most intense ab workout you can imagine while a giant sits on you.
The author with iPhone at the ready in the rear cockpit of Blue Angel No. 4 during the Diamond Pass. (Photo: David F. Brown)
And G forces are something the Blue Angels train to very seriously. In the spring of 2007 Lieutenant Commander Kevin Davis, then Blue Angel No. 6, was killed after he put himself out while attempting a high G rendezvous towards the end of a show over MCAS Beaufort, SC. He was unable to recover the jet before hitting the tree line.
Now the Blue Angel pilots go through centrifuge training on an annual basis to ensure their anti-G techniques are sound and their G tolerance is the best it can be. The Loop Break Cross is followed by a couple other high G maneuvers – the Delta Break Out, and the Delta Pitch Up Break.
After that the jets land in order. The precision continues as the jets park. The Hornets shut down and open their canopies simultaneously. The crowd cheers as the Blue Angels dismount their fighters and march back to where they started about 45 minutes earlier.
They finish with handshakes all 'round. Another successful show in the books.
After some photos in front of one of the jets with fans, the Blue Angels are back in the ready room for the debrief. The flight may be over, but the Blue Angels aren't done working.
The pilots hold a kangaroo court of sorts, calling themselves on their transgressions during the event, starting with the Boss. The tone is at once serious and lighthearted. A video review follows, starting with the pilots marching to their jets. They freeze the playback, critiquing minor synchronization flaws as the team went from parade rest to attention or saluted a plane captain as they passed each jet.
The attention to detail grows as the playback rolls to the airborne portion of the show. They run the tape back and forth like a football coach working the clicker. Most of the dings involve discrepancies that are invisible to the untrained (read "average air show attendee") eye – a hair early on a roll or barely off on a crossing move. The focus is amazing considering these guys have been flying the exact same show for nine months, literally hundreds of times, but they still seem to share a concern that it isn't quite right.
The conduct of the debrief is the answer – beyond what it takes to fly the jet – to why it's so hard to be a Blue Angel. Anyone who's spent time in the carrier aviation world probably knows someone who's rushed the Blues – someone who seemed perfect for the Team in terms of stick and rudder skills, demeanor, and personal appearance – but who ultimately didn't get the nod. But watching these guys interact is a study in zero ego in spite of pointed criticism, even that that could have been interpreted as a less-than-totally-positive view of piloting ability. They are earnest to a man. They all want to get better, and they see the next show as an opportunity to do just that.
And maybe that's the lesson of the Blue Angels: It's not enough to get it right most of the time; it needs to be all the time.