A Day at the Beach
Yes, flying high performance aircraft off a ship was fun. Well, maybe not like the goofy grin you have on an amusement park roller coaster when you roar past the camera that captures it. It’s a different kind of fun; exhilarating after the fact, challenging, rewarding. My memories are vivid, but in 17 years of active military flying, one day stands out.
In my career I knew many Blue Angel demo pilots. The Blues are superb aviators and great guys; all of us looked up to them. It’s a demanding job; from January till November they are first training then on the air show circuit, away from their home of Pensacola most of that time, and flying intense practice and demo flights 5-6 times a week. When they aren’t flying they are in the gym (more on that later) or at a social “commit” to meet show-site heavies or visit a hospital, etc. For ten months a year they must be “on” and their performance is scrutinized daily.
LCDR Mark “Gucci” Dunleavy was a Wildcat squadron mate, and in 1998 he was Blue Angel #4, flying the slot in the trademark Delta formation in his second season. The Boss was CDR George “Elwood” Dom, a contemporary and friend. Earlier that year Gucci invited me to fly with the team. It is that easy to fly with the Blue Angels.
We selected July 9, 1998 as a demo practice I could join. This was not just any practice. It was practice for the annual Pensacola Beach show, and would be conducted the Friday before the Saturday show. The “Beach Show” is Pensacola’s biggest event and attendance is well into six figures. We would take off from NAS Pensacola, fly the ten or so miles to the beach, fly a 40 minute demo, and recover back at the air station. Cool.
As a squadron Executive Officer everyone is nice to you, and my request to fly a Hornet to Pensacola was approved. Those of you familiar with the forested monotony of I-10 from Jacksonville to Pensacola will appreciate the 45 minute flight in an FA-18. (Once flying from Pensacola to Jacksonville I accomplished it in 38 minutes. You could do it in under 30, but only once.)
I landed at Pensacola’s Sherman Field and taxied up to the Blue Angel flight line. A razor-sharp crewman in blue coveralls and Ray-Ban shades directed me in to my parking spot with crisp signals. With a smile he said not to worry about the jet, he’d button it up.
Gucci welcomed me and we departed for Perdido Key to stow his ski boat. The team had spent the day waterskiing with finalists “rushing” the team in a last opportunity to get to know them before selection. One of them we had served with was Tater, who we would meet later at Pensacola Beach.
At the Sandshaker we ordered Bushwackers and caught up with all the aviators in familiar fashion, filling the air with jargon and acronyms. There I caught up with Tater and Elwood, and met the others on the team whom I had not met. We had a fun night on beautiful Pensacola Beach, with the finest sugar-white sand in the world. Tater was excited at the prospect of joining the team, and was envious of me flying with them the next day.
The team invited me to sit in on their preflight brief, an honor I appreciated. From a checklist Elwood went over the maneuvers, and in a way that allowed the pilots to envision themselves flying it. The Blue Angel flight brief is likened to a séance, and I spied pilots with eyes closed moving their hands as if they were flying as Elwood described each sequence. Think about it; this is halfway through the season of flying demos almost daily, they’ve got it, but they still cover each maneuver in detail. Frankly, it is a hallmark of tactical aviation, but nonetheless I was impressed with the level of detail and concentration in this “routine” Blue Angel flight brief.
I walked to the jet early to get myself situated in the back seat of the two-seater Gucci would fly for this practice. In the paraloft I was asked if I wanted to wear my G-suit. There is only one answer when flying with the team – no.
The Blue Angels do not wear G-suits, which can add an extra 2-3 g’s of g tolerance. They can interfere with their flight control; going 350 knots only 18 inches from another jet requires fine adjustments. They are also cumbersome to put on and off and don’t look cool on a blue flight suit. The pilots spend hours in the gym most days; they are world class athletes who can crank on 6 g’s for 40 minutes, then step out of the jet looking fresh as a flower.
With me already strapped the team marched down the line and each pilot peeled off to his jet as they would in front of a crowd. On signal Gucci started us up and in no time all six jets were ready for taxi. I got the aft cockpit energized and the jets taxied in formation to the hold short line. Like the pilots, I was fitted with a boom mic, leaving my oxygen mask behind.
We took position on Runway 25 and got the weather report; thunderstorms to the northwest. We could see them, but Elwood decided we had enough time before they arrived. His wingmen each acknowledged his radio calls in rapid fashion. They were pumped up, excited, ready to fly a perfect demo. In my experience, us pilots on radio check-ins try to sound too cool for school, just another day at the office. But the Blues are almost childlike in their enthusiastic radio comms. It’s concentration, from when they march to the jets to when they salute at the end of the demo, and the radio enthusiasm helps them stayed focused.
We rolled down the runway as a division, four jets maintaining position on Elwood as we gained flying speed. As the Number 2 jet lifted off and raised the landing gear, Gucci, feeding in left rudder while holding his wings level, slid under #2, our nose moving into the position #2’s main mounts occupied as they retracted into the aircraft. Wow.
We turned south and crossed Johnson Beach, heading out to sea. “Wanna fly?” Gucci asked. I said, “Yeah, I’ve got it,” and took control. On occasion fleet aviators fly the diamond formation returning from a hop, and as a senior aviator it had been a while since I flew as #4 in a diamond. I allowed myself a smile; flying form in the Blue Angel Diamond is heady stuff, and soon it was the Delta as Numbers 5 and 6 joined. Elwood led us in a wide arc to the east at 500 feet as I maintained a “fleet” distance on him. Approaching Pensacola Beach, Gucci said, “I’ll take it back now.” We transferred control again, and he then positioned us “Blue Angel close” to #1. I was amazed how close we were; the exhaust nozzles of Elwood’s Hornet were right above my head, and it was loud.
With smoke “on” we thundered over the familiar “beach ball” water tower and the two solos broke off. The beach was packed with people and boats jammed Little Sabine Bay. Skies to the west were graying, and lowering.
With a sing-song cadence over the radio Elwood led the diamond through each maneuver. The radio chatter was heavy as the diamond and the solos hit their check points, the object being to keep jets in front of the crowd to the maximum practicable.
We set up over Fort Pickens for the Double Farvel. Zipping down the beach at under 500 feet – me waving at people on the shoreline – the formation loosened up and on signal Elwood and Gucci rolled inverted, which is a cool way to say upside down. The formation tightened again, and I found myself looking “up” at the bottom of Elwood’s jet with shoreline breakers in the background. Hanging in my straps I waved at the Casino Beach crowd as we rocketed past and once clear of show center opened up, rolled upright, and back into the normal diamond.
The weather continued to come down, with a ledge of overcast that prevented us from conducting iconic overhead maneuvers like the Line Abreast Loop or Delta Break Cross. We continued in the “Flat Show.”
Halfway through the demo the diamond “breaks up” for certain maneuvers allowing the pilots to pull hard and put some g on the jets. I was able to withstand the g, but one time Gucci reefed on a turn to rendezvous on Elwood over Gulf Breeze. Tightening my leg and abdominal muscles I was ready for it, and felt my vision gray and then tunnel – not unfamiliar sensations for tactical aviators – before finally going black. I was awake with eyes open, but could not see. Gucci let off the g and my vision returned at once.
Along for the ride, watching a Blue Angel demo from inside it, I caught myself smiling that goofy roller coaster smile. While fun, I was impressed with everything. The level of precision and commitment to excellence were an order above what I had experienced in my naval aviation career, and that’s saying something.
The weather was about to hit Sherman Field, and Elwood had to get us home. With a final Delta Flat Pass to wave good-bye, we headed west to Fort Pickens where Elwood detached us in order. Each pilot slowed in trail, dropping their gear and flaps for landing on Runway 36. We rolled to the end and into a sheet of rain, rain that followed us back to the flight line. After scampering through the deluge to the hangar – not cool! – we took a “six-man” photo as the thunderstorm beat up NAS Pensacola.
They invited me to the debrief, another honor. Every military flight ends with a debrief and receiving frank, constructive criticism is a daily occurrence for aviators, but the Blues take it to a higher level. Constructive criticism was delivered among the teammates and in no uncertain terms; even Elwood received his share. While fleet Commanding Officers are debriefed by juniors on their flight performance, I was taken aback. There was no sugar coating, and each pilot raised his hand and admitted a shortcoming on that flight that they would fix. Another friend who served on the team said you must put on your big-boy pants and take it. These transgressions were transparent to me, but they detected them in themselves and each other and did not ignore them.
Once the debrief ended I showed them the newest fleet gizmo, the Anvis-9 Night Vision Goggles, which they took turns with as the ready room lights were extinguished. With smiles and handshakes they then bade me farewell…it was after 5pm on a Friday with the big show Saturday but they remained behind to pick the new demo pilots for the 1999 team.
The maintenance crew was all there, and despite their friendly smiles I knew why – me! I quickly filed my flight plan and started up. My plan was to wait till sunset to rendezvous with an Air Force KC-135 tanker over the Atlantic that my squadron arranged for night in-flight refueling practice. I saluted good-bye and taxied to the hold-short line where I sat at idle power for 45 minutes as the sun lowered. Timing it, I took off early and conserved fuel over north Florida enroute to the tanker off Jacksonville, as planned.
Driving home I reflected on the experience. What an unforgettable day, amid friends, with can-do professionals delivering a precision performance, exhilarating and fun. Everyone was terrific and could not have been nicer. Each Blue Angel I’ve ever known, from pilot to support crew, is friendly and personable, with self-deprecating humor and humble appreciation to be part of the team. Simply put, the Blue Angels are good, and know how to have fun.