Published in the September-October 1988 issue of Naval Aviation News
By Peter Mersky
Photo Credits: Peter Mersky & Katsu Tokunaga

It's a familiar scene: six blue aircraft aligned in perfect formation, flashing over the crowd of thousands of upturned faces, people gasping in astonishment. Or all six planes aiming for a pre-established "center point" on the ground, appearing to come together for a split second, then angling off in gut-wrenching climbs, trailing white smoke to mark their paths.

These are the Blue Angels, the Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron, at work. In the 42 years since their formation, over 202 million people have watched the Blues' breathtaking air work, many of them lining up after the show to have their programs autographed by one of the team's blue-suited aviators. Others, perhaps confined to a bed in a children's hospital ward, have been visited by one of these ambassadors of Naval Aviation.

The public sees the Blue Angels for eight months. When their final show in mid-November, the team stands down, assesses the past year's performance, then takes a break during the Christmas holidays. The new year begins the cycle all over again. It is a time for beginning and renewal; it's the time when members form the previous year's team assume more responsibilities as they move to a senior position in the formation. They also train the new members of the team, recent selectees who, while experienced Naval Aviators, find themselves once more in the role of students. This period is intense, sometimes difficult for everyone as all the Blue Angels - officers and enlisted personnel - get ready for the new season, coming all too soon.

The Blue Angels have been traveling to NAF El Centro since 1967 to work out the winter kinks and prepare their new season's maneuvers. The squadron's current aircraft inventory includes six F/A-18As, one two-seat F/A-18B and one C-130F transport.

I visited them at their winter training quarters in California's Imperial Valley, 120 miles east of San Diego. Here dependably clear and sunny flying weather prevails most of the year, although the air gets a bit choppy, especially within 1,000 feet of the ground.

At the desert center point, several miles west of the base, I watched during one morning session as four Hornets, including the two-seater, practiced several maneuvers. Once, as the planes passed, the "slot" pilot, Lieutenant Commander Donnie Cochran, pulled his aircraft out of the formation, climbing toward the clouds to check the ceiling. He had been detached by the flight leader, Commander Gil Rud, always called "the Boss," whose responsibility is maintaining situational awareness as the team practices. Watching the rain and clouds only 1,000 feet above the desert floor, Cdr. Rud wanted to know exactly how low were the clouds.

As soon as the pilots land after each practice flight, they immediately begin an intensive debrief. Personal and professional matters are discussed and smoothed out. At this time, the team sees the video tapes which are filmed at every practice and air show.

The new pilots listen and learn, and it's a full-time job. After all the time it takes to be selected for the Blue Angels, the selectee's work really begins when he becomes a functioning member of the team. In 1987, 47 applicants tried for the three vacancies. The field was narrowed to seven semifinalists, who spent several days with the team, traveling to show sites, attending social functions and getting to know the team up close. Finally, the selection was made, with the approval of the Chief of Naval Air Training, and the three new Blue Angels reported to the squadron's home base at Pensacola, Fla.

The new members got into the swing of things, visiting show sites for the 1988 season and, most importantly, transitioning to the Hornet. Since the F/A-18 is still new to the fleet, it's a pretty safe bet that most new Blue Angels will not have much previous time in the aircraft. The Blues transitioned to the Hornet after their 1986 season, and most of that year's team was extended for a rare third year to facilitate the transition.

Though Blue Angel pilots add 500 hours to their log books each year, they get their first 30 Hornet hours with VFA-106, the East Coast F/A-18 fleet readiness squadron, soon after joining the team. Prior to going to El Centro in early January, they add another 20 to 30 hours of local sorties in the Pensacola area.

The squadron uses a building-block approach to indoctrinating and training new members, keeping the education within a two-plane section. For Example, within the four-plane diamond formation, the left wingman (number 3) is trained by the slot pilot (number 4). The right wingman (number 2) is usually a Marine pilot and flies with the Boss (number 1), although he receives much of his indoctrination and training from the slot pilot, who has overall responsibility for the entire formation. The lead solo, position 5, trains the new member in the opposing solo role (number 6).

Eventually, as the section leaders rotate out at the end of the year, the once new pilots move up to the senior positions. Thus, number 3 moves to the slot position, and opposing solo becomes lead solo. Only the right wingman remains where he is for the entire duration of his tour with the Blue Angels. In time, he helps "train" a new flight leader.

While pilot positions for the new year are usually determined by the previous year's assignment, the narrator (number 7) is a wild card. This important position is a three-year assignment, instead of the regular two-year tour for designated demonstration pilots. The narrator, normally a more junior pilot, spends his first year learning the long focal accompaniment to the air shows. It's a deceptively difficult job. The words and voice inflections - timed just right for each sequence in the air - provide information rhythm and timing, and are an integral part of each show. A miscue from the Blue Angel at the mike can spoil the whole effect of a maneuver for the spectators.

The narrator also has two important secondary roles: site inspector and two-seater pilot, which involves making media and VIP indoctrination flights, a major portion of the non-air show flight schedule. Number 7 makes pre-show inspection trip to airfields to ensure the team will have the needed facilities and cooperation from military and civilian officials, including any FAA considerations. While the narrator gets valuable assistance from the Naval Flight Officer who is the events coordinator (Number 8), he has a busy schedule for his first year.

Positioned behind the other aircraft, the slot pilot sees the entire formation, whether in the four-plane diamond or the six-plane delta. His experience and calm judgment throughout the air show constantly refine the maneuvers. Number 4 keeps an eye on weather, emergency field status, fuel altitude and airspeed. He can call for a little more room between wingtips, or advise the Boss to increase roll rate.

LCdr. Donnie Cochran is in his third year with the Blues, as the slot pilot for the 1988 team. He made one of the last RF-8 cruises with VFP-63 in 1980, then transitioned to the F-14. He commented that teaching a new pilot to safely clear a formation and the necessity for proper communications on the correct frequencies are among the team's prime concerns during the winter training cycle at El Centro.

Discussing his responsibility of training two wingmen, LCdr. Cochran said, "Most tactical aviators have not cone aerobatics below 10,000 feet, and their first time with us below 2,000 feet is an eye-opener. We do something like 50-60 roll-loop combinations before bringing the two wingmen together with number 1."

"There's a lot more than just flying the show," Cochran said. "Number 4 has to have the big picture, as well as to sound positive and calm on the radio when he makes calls to the formation. Everyone depends on you for backup. By the same token, the slot also has to be conservative and make timely calls. A lot rides on him. He can't be a wimp, but he has to be patient."

Skipper Rud agreed, "Number 4 sets the formation and has to be rock-solid. He's a safety valve behind the Boss."

Lieutenant Wayne Molnar, operations officer and lead solo, commented, "New guys have a hard time breaking in because this squadron is so much different than a fleet squadron. It takes a while t catch on to the tempo and operation."

Lt. Molnar indoctrinated Lieutenant Cliff Skelton, last year's narrator, who took over the opposing solo position for 1988. One of the team's newest routines with the F/A-18 is Lt. Skelton's slow flight, which was added because many fleet pilots wanted to see a demonstration of the Hornet's controllability at minimum speed.

During a practice air show for a class of 30 El Centro fifth graders, I watched this new maneuver, and it's an attention-getter. Approaching the center point. Lt. Skelton reduced his airspeed to 135 knots, not much above the Hornet's stall speed, and increased his angle of attack - gingerly jockeying his big fighter down the length of the runway, literally walking on his tail. In the choppy air above the valley floor, flying the sensitive Hornet at minimum controllable speeds is very demanding.

Captain Kevin Lauver is the 1988 Marine Corps representative in the flight demonstration squadron. He is also unique as the first selectee from the V/STOL community; his previous tour was with VMA-542 in AV-8A, then AV-8B Harriers. As a Naval Aviator, Capt. Lauver received the normal fixed-wing training. Subsequently, during his assignment to a Harrier squadron, he established a solid reputation as a formation pilot, which made him an attractive candidate for the Blues.

"It's been an eye-opener," Lauver commented, "to see how the team goes together - from the ground up - from preliminary formation training with the slot pilot chasing you, to communications and integrating the sequence with other members."

Cdr. Rud, a light attack pilot now in his third year as flight leader for the Blue Angels, was recently selected for promotion to captain and for a deep draft command in the future. "The training schedule is tough," the Boss said. "It tests your mettle and prepares you for the show season."

My job is great'" he added. "Most people who have commanded a tactical air squadron could do it. It's very rewarding, but a lot of work, and a lot of flying - twice as much flying as a C.O. of a regular squadron could expect."

An integral part of the Blue Angels organization is the team of Marine aviators and the air crewmen who operate the C-130 transport dubbed "Fat Albert." The blue-and-white Hercules hauls ground crewmen and officers, maintenance apparatus, and other supplies to the various show sites. The Herk also makes a dramatic Jet-assisted takeoff performance during the air shows, demonstrating its short-field takeoff and supply-drop capabilities.

One area which always fascinated me, watching the Blue Angels during the regular show season, was how they were able to continue training, fly to and from the various sites during their 75 annual air shows, fly the shows in all kinds of weather, and then meet the huge numbers of people afterwards.

The pilots, individually or in groups, speak at various functions or at impromptu meetings. There is no "charm school" which trains a Blue Angel for this non-flying portion of his tour. Obviously, part of his selection to the team came from his demonstrated maturity and personality, which allow him to live in the constant pressure of a "fishbowl."

After my visit, I realized I was a little surprised at what I had seen: these guys work hard! They give 200 percent, if such intangibles can be measured. There's no doubt about it. All the flash and perks aside, being a Blue Angel - especially a new Blue Angel - is fraught with pressure and potential problems. It is not just a glamour-filled job as many people might suppose.

But, like many other jobs in Naval Aviation, the rewards are great and, in some cases, immediate. These "perks" include the smile of a delighted youngster watching the show or receiving an autographed program from a Blue Angel, and the animated questioning of older teenagers as they begin to decide what they want to do with their lives, and perhaps are considering the Navy. Of course, the biggest reward of all is flying a high-performance jet in a demanding routine with other equally skilled aviators.

Two Blue Angel F/A-18s fly in tight formation.
Photo by Peter Mersky

The four-plane diamond overflies Fat Albert, the Blues’ C-130.
Photo by Peter Mersky

Number 6, the opposing solo, in a typical pose over the California desert during winter training.
Photo by Katsu Tokunaga

A walk-down follows each flight and requires the same precision as every in-flight maneuver.
Photo by Peter Mersky

Meeting the crowds after a performance is part of the Blue Angel package deal.
Photo by Peter Mersky

Lt. Doug McClain (right), the 1988 narrator, practices his routine with help from Lt. Mike Campbell (left), the events coordinator, and Capt. Mark Mykityshyn (center), one of the C-130 pilots.
Photo by Peter Mersky