When the Navy’s Blue Angels demonstration squad performs over the San Francisco Bay for Fleet Week this weekend, the squad’s distinctive royal blue jets and their pilots will be the focus of attention as they do breathtaking stunts over the city at speeds close to 700 mph.
But the jet pilots are just part of the team. A myriad of other crewmembers contribute numerous hours to each air show, including maintenance workers who have years of fleet experience prior to joining the Blue Angels.
“You have to earn this crest,” said Vincent Dunhill-Cooper, an aviation ordinance man and crew chief, as he pointed to the Blue Angels badge on his jumpsuit. “Everybody wants to be in the Blue Angels because this is where the best of the best are.”
Dunhill-Cooper and the other technical staff inspect the aircraft every morning before the pilots take the planes out for training runs or air shows.
As the people responsible for upkeep and pilot safety, they turn on the engines, inspect the flight controls, do communications checks and set up the pilots’ flight gear.
They also monitor life support equipment such as oxygen and cabin pressure regulators, and test the seat ejection explosive equipment.
“We basically own the planes,” Dunhill-Cooper said. “We give them to the pilots for 45 minutes and then get them back.”
The Blue Angels use first-generation Boeing F/A-18 Hornet jets. Although the demonstration craft have been altered from their original mission states, the maintenance staff said a Blue Angel jet can be fleet-ready in 72 hours.
Travis Simpson, a safety equipment mechanic, said there are five differences between a Blue Angel plane and a squadron F/A-18. The demonstration jets have inverted fuel pumps so they can fly upside down longer, and smoke pumps are installed to make the air shows more dramatic.
The guns are removed, and stick springs are inserted in the cockpits so all of the jets handle as similarly as possible, Simpson said. A stopwatch is attached to the cabin so the pilots hit their time cues during the shows. Finally, the planes are not the military gray color of combat-ready Hornets.
All of the Blue Angels’ support personnel, maintenance staff and tools are transported to show sites in “Fat Albert,” the Blue Angels’ C-130 cargo turboprop aircraft.
The C-130 is larger and boxier than the streamlined Hornets, but Fat Albert kicks off every Blue Angels show with a 10-minute demonstration of the C-130’s flight capabilities.
“It’s a very versatile aircraft,” said Maj. Drew Hess, Fat Albert’s pilot. “I think the No. 1 comment we get is, ‘I didn’t know an aircraft that size could do those types of things.'”
Hess and the Fat Albert crew will simulate maximum flight take-offs over the Bay, do high-speed passes of 370 mph at an altitude of 50 feet, and demonstrate the plane’s turning capability.
“It has a very small turn radius,” Hess said.
Hess said the moves are all based upon maneuvers the C-130 would do in a fleet. The tricks are modified to fit in with the air show, but there’s nothing special about the Blue Angels’ C-130 other than the paintjob. Like the Blue Angel demonstration jets, Fat Albert sports a royal blue, gold and white color palette.
“It’s exciting. There’s a lot of adrenaline,” Hess said of performing in the air shows. “We’re aware of the hazards, but I don’t think any of us get scared because you can’t think about that stuff. You go out and execute. You just do what you’re trained to do. Other than that, it’s just fun.”
After the C-130 demonstration, the Fat Albert seven-member crew flies back to the airfield and debriefs while the jet pilots finish the rest of the show.
“None of us have flown a perfect flight,” Hess said. “There’s always something you can make better.”
After the jet pilots return, there’s a massive debriefing. Every air show is taped, and the entire squad evaluates the footage in slow motion and reverse. The actual demonstrations take 45 minutes, but the debriefing can last close to two hours.
“A lot of work goes into the shows, and some of it’s tedious,” Hess said. “But I think everybody knows that’s what it takes to do the stuff we do and make it better for the next time.”
The Blue Angels were formed in 1946 as a naval demonstration team meant to maintain public interest in the Navy, according to their official military Web site. The Navy estimates 15 million people see their show each year.