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:
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…..
What? You don’t see it?
Ughhhh, seriously?? Jeez, you must be blind…. It’s Right There!!!
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…..
Though he still had some work to do….
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!!!!!
Turns 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?
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….
(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??
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.
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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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…
before ending with this spectacular finish…
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!