This past weekend brought the 2019 version of the Navy’s renowned flight demonstration team, the Blue Angels, to Salinas, California. Salinas marked the second of many stops on the Blues’ performance calendar for this year.
For the uninitiated, I offer the following:
-The mission of the Blue Angels is to demonstrate the performance capabilities of the modern Navy’s latest aircraft and the Naval/Marine aviators who fly them. The carefully chosen team of six aviators is comprised of the best of the best in Naval and Marine aviation. They execute the team mission by flying difficult maneuvers at high speed while maintaining very close proximity to one another in formation. This is not stunt flying. The difficult and precise routines are performed to demonstrate the ultimate capabilities of both men and machines.
-If you have never seen the Blue Angels, by all means, go do it! I can confidently speak not only for myself, but for millions of others who have attended their airshows when I say that the excitement of seeing a Blue Angels performance will rank near the top of anything the average person will experience in a lifetime. I still recall the memories of my earliest exposure, nearby at the-then Moffett Field Naval Air Station; that was in the mid-nineteen-fifties. Since then, I have seen the Blues perform several times: the thrill is ever present with each performance!
The Blue Angels were formed in 1946, just after the war. During that first year, they flew the venerable Navy warbird, the Grumman F6F Hellcat. The following year, the team embraced the faster Grumman F8F Bearcat. The team entered the jet age in 1950 with the Grumman F9F Panther. The Blues’ current ride is the McDonnell Douglas F/C-18 Hornet, an iconic airplane which has earned the longest tenure with the Blues of any airplane (the F/A-18 in1986).
This airplane is currently transitioning into an advanced configuration called the “Super Hornet.” The Navy has chosen to forego the latest high-performance airplane available in the arsenal, the advanced F-35. Procurement, maintenance and operating costs for the F-35 relative to the Hornet dictate that decision.
While anyone witnessing a Blue’s performance cannot help but admire the capabilities of the men who fly these yellow-trimmed, azure blue Hornets, my mind also focuses heavily on the aerodynamic beauty and raw power of the F-18 itself. The brute power of the airplane manifests itself with a deafening roar as the Blues roll down the runway using full afterburners during take-off. For much of the performance, the sleek Hornets slice through the air almost silently at first, only to be followed a split second later by the throaty roar from their powerful jet engines – even with afterburners off.
During their performance demonstration, the Blues’ two solo airplanes, tail-numbers five and six, employ full afterburners as they skim low across the field and rapidly swing nose up into a vertical position prior to heading several thousand feet straight up into the deep blue sky – all with no loss of momentum. To witness such performance from a flying machine is to marvel at the vision, determination, and engineering brilliance of its creators. Equally incredible is the realization that what is on display right before one’s eyes is occurring a mere one hundred and sixteen years after the Wright Brothers first left the ground for twelve seconds in 1903. That fragile machine was powered by a tiny 12 horsepower, four-cylinder piston engine machined by the Brothers’ bicycle shop mechanic, Charlie Taylor.
I like to call such positive experiences like the Blue Angels “perspective builders,” experiences which go a long way toward neutralizing the demonstrated array of follies and foolishness that history attributes to the human-race – individually and collectively. There is a sad irony, however, in the realization that some of the greatest and most rapid advances in aviation have been motivated typically by the prospect of fighting wars!
At the Airshow, It’s Time to Fly: The Excitement Builds!
In the opening moments of the program, the pilots stride six abreast with military precision along the flight line as they approach their airplanes which are precisely parked in numerical order along the line. The eyes of the crowd are affixed on the pilots, naturally, but I tend also to notice the crew chief assigned to each pilot/airplane standing by his/her aircraft, hands behind the back, waiting to swing into action. Like their crew chief counterparts in World War II combat aviation, they, too, are unsung heroes tasked with the responsibility of keeping their airplane in flying condition. In the same vein, I also appreciate the skilled mechanics who travel with and are part of the Blue Angels organization, responsible for the perfect condition of all six airplanes. There is no room, here, for less than “perfect.”
The group commander flying Blue Angel number one moves first to his airplane from his position in the procession down the flight line, followed sequentially by the pilot of number two, and so on. Each pilot “mounts” his aircraft and deftly clambers into the cockpit of an airplane which is meticulously groomed ahead of time by the support staff under the watchful eyes of each crew chief. The crew chief helps each pilot “strap” into his airplane. Then, matching yellow helmets are donned by each pilot and electrical connections made to the vital on-board communications equipment which connects all six airplanes with each other… and the ground. Now the crew chiefs step nimbly down off their airplanes and, starting with Angel number one, the Hornets’ canopies close in sequence down the line.
The excited tension in the crowd is now palpable as a perceptible “whine” and loud “whoosh” emanates from the engines of Blue Angel number one, usually accompanied by a thin puff of white smoke expelled from the tailpipe. The same scenario repeats with Blue Angel number two and so-on down the line until a very robust whining/shhhhh sound emanates from the entire flight line. Now number one pulls out from the flight line turns and starts for the taxiway, followed, as always, in sequence by the rest of the team. In a few minutes, the crowd will hear all engines release the throaty roar which signifies the take-off roll with afterburners and the start of yet another in the long line of incomparable Blue Angels flight demonstration performances.
The airshow crowd is peppered with young children whose parents brought them to see the modern-day version of the barnstorming phenomenon of the nineteen-thirties: a pilot and his Jenny bi-plane landing in a farmer’s field to demonstrate to the amazement of local folks what he and his airplane can do.
My wife and I took our two young grandsons to the airfield last Saturday to see the Blues. I wanted them to experience the same inspiration and unforgettable panorama that I was fortunate enough to witness as a teen-ager – the impressive display of men and machines at their very best. The boys loved it! They all do.