Articles

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.

Humor

The truth about cell phones in Basic Training

Thank god you got out when you did! The moment you received your DD-214, it was officially an end of an era. Hopefully, your branch won't fall victim like all those other, weaker branches did. It's Lord of the Flies in here.

New recruits are arriving in droves and they're pulling out their cell phones to record themselves talking back to their drill sergeants. If the drill sergeants have a problem with it, they whip out their stress cards, go back to eating their Tide Pods, and continue listening to their music (which, coincidentally, has gotten progressively worse since your generation, too).

Keep reading... Show less
Articles

How R. Lee Ermey's Hollywood break is an inspiration to us all

While there have been many outstanding actors and celebrities who have raised their right hand, there has never been a veteran who could finger point his way to the top of Hollywood stardom quite like the late great Gunnery Sergeant R. Lee Ermey.

Keep reading... Show less
Military Life

5 reasons your troops are more important than promotion

If there's one complaint common across the military, it's that commanders too often care more about their careers than the well-being of their troops. It's problematic when higher-ups are willing to put lower enlisted through hell if it means they look good at the end of the day.

Keep reading... Show less
Military Life

'Operation Cure Boredom' is a funny, unrepentant look back at life in the 1990s Air Force

The following is an excerpt from the first book by Air Force veteran and Hollywood writer Dan Martin. Titled Operation Cure Boredom, it's a hilarious collection of short stories chronicling the adventures of Martin's 1990-1994 enlistment in the world's best Air Force.

This chapter, called "Guest on the Range," is about the extraordinary lengths Martin went to in order to qualify on the firing range as a junior enlisted Crew Chief.

Keep reading... Show less
Military Life

The top 6 reasons people decide to join the infantry

Deciding to join the military is a huge step for anyone looking to make a life-altering change. One of the most appealing aspects of becoming a member of the armed forces is the vast array of professional opportunities the service offers.

You can sign up, ship out, and, within a few short months, be guarding a military installation as your newfound brothers- and sisters-in-arms sleep.

Keep reading... Show less
GEAR & TECH

These high-tech glasses could change how sailors train

Training has evolved over the years but the core elements have always remained the same. There's an instructor and a bunch of students. They go over material, both in theory and in practice, mastering the skills required by the job. But no matter how good the teacher, students will always need a refresher from time to time. So, that means it's time to go back to school — or does it?

Now, mixed-reality technology — including smart glasses — could change the way sailors learn the skills they need to serve.

Keep reading... Show less
Entertainment

6 US conflicts that would (probably) make terrible video games

When developers set out to make video games, their focus should always primarily be on crafting a fun and engaging experience. Oftentimes, you'll see video games set far in the future so that developers can place an arsenal of advanced, sci-fi weaponry in the hands of the player — because it's fun. Other times, they'll take cues from real wars and toss the player directly into the heat of a historical battle — because that's fun, too.

Keep reading... Show less
Tactical

How to start a fire with only one hand

Heading out into the wilderness for a camping trip is exhilarating and refreshing. Starting a campfire and roasting some marshmallows under the stars is a great way to get in touch with Mother Nature. Although the idea of spending a night in the great outdoors sounds incredible, campers should always remember to bring specific tools and learn important survival skills in the event they sustain an injury and help is far, far away.

It gets cold out there at night, so it's important to know the basics of starting a fire to keep warm — even in the dire circumstance that you've been injured. Do you know how to start a fire with just one hand? You never know — this skill might just save your life.

Keep reading... Show less