The Blue Angels' high level of precision begins nearly 90 minutes before the six gleaming F/A-18 Hornets take to the skies; and as Captain Greg McWherter, Blue Angel No. 1, 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 one through six).
I'm seated at the main table as a function of being Blue Angel No. 4's backseater for the day. I'm not exactly inexperienced in matters pertaining to tactical aviation: I rode around in tactical jets -- primarily Tomcats -- for most of my 20 years in the Navy. But, I haven't strapped into an ejection seat since the late '90s.
I've marveled at the Blue Angels since I was a young boy living aboard MCAS El Toro when they flew F-11s. This is my first time flying with them.
Marine Major Brent "Two Face" Stevens is in his second full season with the Blues, and this year he moved to the slot position after flying in the No. 3 spot during his first year. I watch as he scribes an imaginary line along a Google Earth printout 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," Capt. McWherter 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.
Maj. Stevens reviews some of the particulars of how we'll do business in Blue Angel No. 4. He quickly runs through the maneuvers once again, emphasizing the points where we'll be subjected to high G forces. Two Face schools me on the best G-induced loss of consciousness avoidance techniques: squeezing the calves and butt cheeks to keep the blood from pooling in the lower extremities. He warns me that as the show goes on I'll have to work harder and harder to keep from passing out, especially during the "break out" maneuvers towards the end. I remind myself that I've never flown a tactical jet without a G-suit.
After a short van ride from the hangar to the flight line, I'm strapping into the jet, ably assisted by Marine Sgt. Ryan Storm. Unlike fleet aviators who put harnesses on before they strap in, the Blue Angels' harnesses stay with the jet. Sgt. Storm points out the lap belt -- a device fleet Hornets don't have - and advises me to cinch it tight.
Maj. Stevens marches over to man up, peeling off from Blue Angels 5 and 6 in a 90-degree pivot at our Hornet's nose. He gets in without a lot of fanfare. He applies electrical power to the jet, and after a quick ICS check the canopy comes down.
We taxi to the duty runway in order, waving and giving the thumbs up to the enthusiastic crowd as we pass. Soon we're in position for takeoff.
The Boss calls, "Let's run 'em up... smoke, on... off brakes now... burners ready now..." and we're on our way down the runway. We're barely off the ground when Major Steven 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. Two Face had warned me that the jets would be flying uncomfortably close together by normal fleet parade position standards, and he was right, although at the same time their position relative to each other was so fixed that I never felt anything but wonder (unlike what I've felt flying with some select RAG students when performing tanker rendezvous back in the day).
The weather is beautiful so we do the "high" version of the show, which allows the team 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 the first major test of whether I have my lap belts cinched tight enough: What they call the "Double Farvel" -- a level pass down the show line with Blue Angels One and Four inverted the whole time.
The Boss transmits "hit it!" and Two Face mirrors him in putting the Hornet on its back. And, for all of my tugging, my lap belts don't exactly keep me in my seat. I have to dip my head slightly to keep my helmet off the canopy.
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 had been some G on the airplane but nothing very taxing. That is about to change with what Two Face called 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, quite frankly, especially when you don't have the controls in your cockpit. Two Face does his best to give me a heads up with calls like "Let's get some... here we go!"
And up to the Loop Break Cross I was successful in "staying awake," which is the common fighter guy euphemism for not conking out because of G-forces. But after the six jets crossed at midfield Two Face reefs on the stick and I get behind the airplane, as we say -- and that is all she wrote.
Post-flight video analysis shows I was out for maybe two seconds, but in the airplane it feels like 15 minutes. Two Face hears me stop working momentarily and he says, "Ward, you good?" over the ICS, which brings me back into focus. Obviously it's a good thing I'm not flying the airplane.
G-LOC is something the Blue Angels take very seriously. In the spring of 2007 Lcdr. 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 -- and thanks to redoubled efforts and a more focused anti-G technique, I stay awake.
Maj. Stevens flies a centered ball to touchdown like the good former LSO he is, and we taxi back into the chocks in order and shut the jets down. The crowd is cheering as the canopy opens, which gives me chills.
I sit in the cockpit as the Blues march back to where they'd started, finishing with a series of handshakes. Another successful show in the books.
I hop out of the Hornet and am greeted by the Team at the bottom of the ladder. We make our way to the back of a van that has coolers of water. We are all sweaty messes. "The blue flight suits hide it pretty well," Capt. McWherter says. "But we all work up a pretty good sweat during the show."
After some photos in front of one of the jets with the entire team, we are back in the ready room for the debrief. The flight may have been 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 goes from parade rest to attention or salutes a plane captain as they pass 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 strikes me as amazing considering these guys have been flying the exact same show since February, literally hundreds of times, but they still seem to share a concern that it isn't quite right.
I think back to the times during my flying career when my squadronmates and I flew basically the same routine for days and weeks on end -- the no-fly zone over southern Iraq, for instance. Many of those debriefs were little more than "any questions? Let's go eat."
The conduct of the Blues' 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 I see zero ego in spite of pointed criticism, even that could have been interpreted as a less-than-totally-positive view of piloting ability. They are earnest to a man. The productive atmosphere had to be real; there was no way at that point in the season they could fake it. They all want to get better, and they see the next show as an opportunity to do just that.
I'm sure it'll take a few days to process my flight with the Blue Angels. Flying with the team is a gift at many levels, but maybe most importantly in that it makes me want to do my job better. It's not enough to get it right most of the time; it needs to be right all of the time.