The U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels are considered the rock stars of the aviation world, and with good reason. For over seventy years this flight demonstration team, originally assembled to assist with recruitment efforts after World War II, has been wowing air show audiences all over the country. If you’re in Pensacola between March and November, you may be able to catch the team practicing their demonstration at their home base – Naval Air Station Pensacola. And if you’re in town on Veterans Day weekend, you can go see their final show of the season at the big NAS Air Show. We did both, attending a practice during the week and the air show on the weekend, and quickly learned that photographing these jets can be a giant pain in the ass.

Blue Angels Practice

The Blue Angels perform at over 70 air shows between March and November. During the week, they oftentimes come home to Pensacola. They publish their local schedule online and welcome guests to attend their practices – some of which include the opportunity to meet the pilots. Unfortunately, the day we went there was some event going on, so instead of being able to go out on the airfield and watch the whole show from the front, we were restricted to an area behind the airfield. While we could still see the majority of the show, because there were buildings and trees between us and the airfield, oftentimes we couldn’t see the jets until they were right over us. All of this made capturing photos a bit challenging.

Here’s an early example:

Empty sky

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Laura, there’s no fighter jet in that picture.” And you are correct. By the time I snapped the shutter on the camera, the jet was 30 miles away and 3 towns over. Because they fly 400 miles per hour. And my reflexes aren’t getting any faster with age.

Let’s try again…..

Empty sky with tiny portion of fighter jet peeking out from behind tree MUCH Better!!

What? You don’t see it?

Ughhhh, seriously?? Jeez, you must be blind…. It’s Right There!!!

Arrow pointing to tiny portion of fighter jet behind tree

Anyway, this photo is obviously suitable for framing and will make a wonderful Christmas gift. Just let me know how many copies you want.

At this point, I handed the camera off to the much more skilled photographer in the family, and he had a bit better luck…..

Blue Angels jets flying in tight formation

Blue Angels jets flying in diamond formation

Though he still had some work to do….

One and a half Blue Angels jets in frame of photo

The Pensacola Airshow

By the time we came back that weekend for the air show, Kevin had upped his photography game significantly. He got some awesome photos of the planes, but one of our favorite performances of the day actually occurred on the ground.

This particular feat of engineering was, in all likelihood, the product of a late night, weed-infused, conversation between two teenage boys hanging out in their parents’ basement…

Teenage Boy #1: Hey….

Teenage Boy #2: Yeah….

Teenage Boy #1: Hey. Ya know what would be cool?

Teenage Boy #2: Yeah?

Teenage Boy #1: A semi truck with a jet engine on the back

Teenage #2: Hmmm. Yeah.

Teenage Boy #1: No Seriously man… listen… Like, you could seriously put a jet engine on the back of a truck and it would be like, like, sooooo rad, man.

Teenage Boy #2: Yeah…

Teenage Boy #1: Yeah, dude…. Sooooo cool. Hey, where are the chips?

Apparently one of those stoners went on to great things because, friends, say hello to SHOCKWAVE!!!!!

Shockwave Jet truck shooting flames from jet enginesTurns out, you can actually put THREE jet engines on the back of a semi and drive it 350 miles per hour down an airport runway. You can also race it against a Lamborghini or a plane. Or you can just shoot fire out of the smokestacks and make a bunch of noise. Whatever flips your lid.

And yes, of course, Kevin and I discussed the relative merits of a jet powered RV, but concluded the engines would likely send the chassis down the highway while leaving the rest of the house behind. I’m pretty sure the folks at Winnebago will pass on the idea.

Air Show Performers

The airshow featured everything from vintage planes to model planes (people build these things in kits and then fly them, because they’re crazy….) to the brand new F-35.

Then there was this husband and wife team – he a pilot, she’s a wing walker…. I’m not sure how that conversation went, but it had to be awesome…

Husband: Hey honey…..

Wife: Yes dear….

Husband: I was thinking….Maybe we could spice up our relationship a bit.  Things have been a bit dull recently.

Wife: Sure, Dear.  What did you have in mind?

Wing walker standing on top of plane while plane is angled toward the ground

Other interesting planes included a restored Russian Mig that Kevin caught flying very low, right behind the Blue Angels’ jets which were parked on the runway….

Mig flying low behind Blue Angel jets parked on the runway

(And no, this Mig doesn’t look like the Mig in Top Gun because that Mig wasn’t a Mig. But Top Gun is still relevant to this discussion because, even more so than the Blue Angels, it was the ultimate recruitment tool. The U.S. Navy reported a 500% increase in applications for people wanting to become fighter pilots following the movie’s release. If it’s been a while since you’ve seen it, the beginning is a great illustration of just how amazing it is for fighter jets to take off from and land on aircraft carriers. Also, and more importantly, there’s no bad time to fire up a little vintage Kenny Loggins. You’re welcome.)

The Navy Seals parachute team was on hand at the air show too. Their day consisted of boarding a C-130, jumping out of the C-130, painting pretty smoke trails in the sky, and waving to the thousands of people who were cheering them on. Who knew being a SEAL was such a cakewalk??

Navy SEAL parachute team member leaving smoke designs in the sky

Navy SEAL parachute team member
Presumably they don’t usually make their presence this obvious?

Then there were the GEICO skytypers…. This is a team of six pilots flying vintage WWII planes that write these perfectly precise messages in the sky at events around the country. But after that part of the show is done, they return to demonstrate different battle formations and maneuvers for the crowd. It was really interesting to watch.

GEICO skytypers in formation

GEICO Skytypers performing demonstration of maneuvers

The Blue Angels

Finally though, it was time for the big guns…. While every other plane and performer is “cool,” the Blue Angels add the element of being “badasses.” When you get in your car on the way to work, is AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” cranking through the neighborhood? No, it is not. Because you’re not a Blue Angel and you don’t get a theme song. Loser.

Their entire routine, including their maintenance team going through checks, the pilots approaching their planes, and the jets taking off are all highly synchronized…. The whole show is set to music and there’s a narrator explaining what the team is doing at any given time.

During their performance, there are usually four jets flying together in a signature “diamond formation,” while the other two “solo” pilots demonstrate other maneuvers over the crowd.

Blue Angels in Diamond FormationThe gravity-defying, stomach turning, heart stopping maneuvers these pilots perform, oftentimes just a few hundred feet off the ground, and frequently within inches of each other, are mind boggling. These are not “tricks” designed to make observers think the planes are closer than they are, or to make the show seem more dangerous than it is. Twenty-six Blue Angels pilots have been killed in shows or practices since the start of the program, the most recent just last year. These maneuvers are death-defying feats of skill and courage where there is, quite literally, no room for error.

U.S. Navy Blue Angels

Making matters even more difficult, the pilots perform the entire show without the benefit of a G-Suit – the jumpsuit regular fighter pilots wear to keep them from passing out when the blood rushes from their brains to their feet while pulling Gs. Because the suit works by constricting their legs, it causes tiny movements that can impact the pilot’s ability to maintain perfect control of their plane – which is needed when they’re flying inches away from their teammates. Therefore, Blue Angels forego the suits entirely, relying instead on certain breathing techniques to keep from passing out.

It’s nuts.

U.S. Navy Blue Angels flying in tight formation

Some of their formations are so close, absent a picture, you wouldn’t believe them possible, and even with a picture – even though I saw them with my own eyes – I still can’t figure out how they were done.

U.S. Navy Blue Angels - 4 jets stacked on top of one another

The official line is that the distance between the jets when they are in these various configurations is 18 inches, but they often appeared much closer than that. And since we saw the very last show of their season, at the point where this particular team had been working together day in and day out for months, it was likely much closer.

Eventually, all six jets teamed up…

Six Blue Angel jets flying together

Blue Angels flying in Delta formation

before ending with this spectacular finish…

Blue Angels in starburst at end of program

The whole thing is pretty much guaranteed to make you want to be a fighter pilot…which is the whole point.

Since I am old and slow and would probably just drop bombs on random things that annoyed me, I quickly jettisoned my dreams of becoming the next great Navy pilot in favor of an evening of watching Youtube videos. If you’re interested in this stuff, I found this particularly fascinating four part series about the team, a video shot from inside the cockpit of one of the jets, and this pretty good video of their demo at a recent airshow.

And if you ever have the chance to go see them perform at an air show, GO!!! It was spectacular!

17 COMMENTS

  1. Great post! For several years we used to meet my folks at the Quonset air show in RI. They would usually switch each year between the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds. Add in my extreme fear of flying and I was always amazed and terrified at the same time! Absolutely love and respect the discipline that goes into being a fighter pilot – especially these elite ones. Glad you got to see the show!

    • That’s so cool that you got to see both teams! We definitely want to try to see the Thunderbirds when we can. The problem is being in the right place at the right time, but it worked out this time, so hopefully it will again in the future. I have heard great things about their show as well, so it will be fun to compare the two teams. I just hope the Thunderbirds have a good theme song. I mean, “Thunderstruck” would have been sort of perfect for the “Thunderbirds,” but the Blue Angels went and used it first. I wonder if they did that on purpose??? 🙂 Anyway, I hope they have something good! 🙂

    • Thanks Ron! Kevin did a really great job with the photos. I was very happy with what we ended up with. The bright sunny day and blue sky was really pretty too. We definitely lucked out on that!

  2. Growing up in Florida I had the opportunity to see the Blue Angels several times. It was enthralling! But I swear, I had even more fun this morning reliving the experience through reading your post. Your commentary is hilarious!! And your photos (Kevin) are amazing. (I believe this is an appropriate use of the word.) We can’t even seem to capture birds in flight and they’re not going anywhere near as fast.

    • Hahaha! Yes! This is another “approved” time to use that word – because really? These pilots are AMAZING!!! I’m glad you like my sense of humor. I crack myself up but I often wonder how many people are rolling their eyes when they read my stuff. Not that I’m gonna change it because, well, I crack myself up. 🙂 Anyway, I hope your journey so far has been all smooth sailing, errr driving… You know what I mean. Safe travels!

      • I love your sense of humor! You totally crack me up so please don’t stop! We’re having a blast being back on the road. Of course, our blog is lagging waaayyyy behind but that’s just how it goes when there’s so much fun stuff to do. That’s my excuse for being tardy.

    • He says “thank you!!” He definitely did his homework before going to the air show and his efforts really paid off. We were very happy with what he was able to capture. Thanks again!!

  3. Great capture of an enthralling airshow. Having a pilot in the family (Steve) it never gets old to see and get awed at these badasses as you say 🙂 When we were there in April I was in thick layers watching them for it was too darn cold. Love your commentaries you are so gifted in making your post interesting.

    • Thanks Monaliza! It must be so interesting for Steve to watch these kinds of shows because he and other pilots would REALLY have an appreciation for what goes into it. It’s all just so mind boggling to watch, but more importantly, it’s so much FUN! The weather here has been pretty great overall and it was absolutely perfect the day of the air show, which made the whole experience that much more enjoyable. Standing out on an airfield in the freezing cold does NOT sound like much fun.

  4. I, too, like your sense of humor probably because it sounds like me! I have often wondered if anyone would want to read our blog (when we hit the road) after a dose or two of my humor. All your favorible responses give me hope!!

    My brother is a fantastic photographer and has photographed both teams multiple times, so I feel confident in saying Kevin did a fabulous job with the photography!!! Even more so for it being his first time!! Wow!!

    • Hi Kathryn, Thanks for your comments. They are very much appreciated. I think you should absolutely write a blog when you start traveling. I feel like a lot of folks are building YouTube channels instead of blogs these days, but I, for one, prefer blogs. And if you can add a sense of humor to it, all the better! The more voices out here, and the more variety, the better for everyone. Plus, while they can be a lot of work, I really enjoy having the record of our travels. I highly recommend it – and please send me the link to yours when you get it started!

  5. Hey Guys, We’re catching up on your Blog now that we’re slowing down for our winter in Portland, OR. Great post (like always!). I also appreciated the link to the NBC article about Kevin Davis…Kevin and I were roommates during Officer Candidate School (OCS) in Pensacola in the fall/winter 1997–glancing up at the Blue Angels while they practiced maneuvers caused us a lot of trouble with our Marine Corps Drill Instructors! Anyhow, Kevin was a good friend and, in fact, was in our wedding a few months after graduation. I was on deployment 2007 when I heard about his death…it really knocked the wind out of me. Anyhow, I’m glad you got to see them…they’re pretty awesome! Hopefully you guys made it to the Navy Air Museum as well…it’s pretty cool too!

    Best,
    Jeff and Anna (and Owen)
    http://www.bigbigtrip.com

    • Hey Jeff,

      Wow, what a small world. I can only imagine what hearing about that accident must have been like for you guys. I am so sorry to hear it hit so incredibly close to home. I was honestly shocked by the number of accidents that have occurred over the years, and it certainly sounds like the government has considered ending the program, but I’m really glad they haven’t. It is such a fantastic experience for people to be able to see what these courageous pilots can do, and it does create a huge sense of pride for the folks who flock to air shows.

      We have now visited the Naval Air Museum twice. It’s such a fantastic facility! Their collection easily rivals the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and the people who work there are so knowledgeable. Unfortunately, I never really wrote about the experience of visiting it on the blog, but we have recommended it to anyone and everyone we’ve met that’s headed toward Pensacola.

      I saw that you all are taking a couple months break from the road. We’ll be heading west soon. Maybe our paths will cross out there sometime in the spring or summer!

      Best to you, Anna, and Owen!

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