Estimated reading time 18 minutes, 16 seconds.
This year, the world-famous U.S. Navy Blue Angels marked their 75th anniversary, flying airshow demonstrations across the United States and select cities in Canada. The team’s anniversary came as the world began to slowly emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic — which eliminated many public events, including airshows, in the name of safety.
While the pandemic kept the Blue Angels on the sidelines in 2020, they knew their nation needed them more than ever. Their mission consists of promoting naval and Marine Corps aviation, meeting military recruitment goals, and, most importantly, inspiring the public. So, they teamed up with their U.S. Air Force (USAF) counterparts, known as the Thunderbirds, on a mission called “Operation America Strong” — to promote national unity and raise spirits by conducting flyovers across cities hit hard by the pandemic.
“Although our primary mission is flying demonstrations, one thing that is coupled with that, that we didn’t get to do during the pandemic, is the community outreach —touching the lives of those in each community [that] we get a chance to perform in,” said Blue Angels commanding officer and flight leader, Capt Brian Kesselring. “So we thought if we got together with the Thunderbirds, it would be a way we could reach out and maybe touch those lives.”
“A lot of people were very, very excited to hear the Blue Angels were coming to do a flyover,” recalled a retired U.S. Navy chief. “It was a really nice distraction in the day; it was very hopeful, it was a moment where we could stop and not think about quarantine and the pandemic, and step out and really feel good about being American and loving our Blue Angels.”
America Strong was just the latest example of the Blues inspiring the public and serving as an example of excellence and leadership.
Building a Demo Team
The Blue Angels team that we know today started in 1946 in Jacksonville, Florida, simply as the U.S. Navy’s “Flight Exhibition Team.” It was led by Second World War combat veteran fighter pilot, Capt Roy M. “Butch” Voris.
“I got [asked] to write up what I thought I would do if I were called in [to do] something like this,” recalled Voris in an interview with Seattle’s Museum of Flight in 2003. “Washington approved it, and I was given full latitude; pick your airplanes, pick your pilots, set your routine, and start training. I didn’t have much guidance, [but] didn’t want any to start with.
“I went to work, and knew we needed two things,” he continued. “Piloting skill was number one. Number two was [to find] people who could converse, talk to the public, get on TV or radio, and at least make a good appearance. Then you start training, and that was just dog work — moving the planes in more and more, closer and closer.”
The Grumman F6F-5 Hellcat was Voris’s plane of choice for the new team. Next, he brought on his pilots: Lt Maurice “Wick” Wickendoll, Lt Ross “Robby” Robinson, and Lt Mel Cassidy. Soon after, Lt Al Taddeo and Lt Gale Stouse joined.
To this day, the Blue Angels team follows Voris’s guidelines in selecting their own pilot replacements, which has to be a unanimous decision by all the pilots. Each new pilot is a volunteer; there is no extra pay to be a Blue Angel.
Voris and his team trained twice a day, and it was not long before they were asked to demo their new routine for a senior member of the Admiral’s staff, and then for the Admiral. All went well, and the team proceeded on to Pensacola, Florida, to perform for the Chief of Naval Air Training.
Washington gave Voris and his team the green light to begin flying public demonstrations around the country. After five shows, they transitioned to the F8F Bearcat. The team, however, still needed a name. They received tons of name suggestions from within the Navy and from the public, but nothing stuck until Wickendoll came across an advertisement in a magazine for the Blue Angel nightclub in New York. With that said, the team flew their first show as the Blue Angels in Omaha, Nebraska, in July 1946.
Voris eventually rotated off the team — a tradition still held today for all team members — and over the next few years the Blues would continue evolving their routine. They started the “Diamond Formation” in 1947, and transitioned to their first jet in 1949 with the F9F-2 Panther. At that time, they also added a sixth demo plane and a second solo pilot. But with the Korean War starting, the team was ordered to stand down from airshow demonstrations in the summer of 1950, and would not return to flying demonstrations until late 1951. Voris was called on once again to lead his team, flying the F9F-5 Panther.
Since then, the Blue Angels have performed for over half-a-billion spectators worldwide, and have flown their demonstrations in 10 different aircraft.
But along the way, the team has sadly lost many crew members to accidents — the most recent member being U.S. Marine Corps Capt Jeff “Kooch” Kuss, who died in June 2016 over Smyrna, Tennessee. Even Voris was involved in a mid-air collision during a demo in 1952 at Corpus Christi, Texas. While he landed safely, his colleague, slot pilot Bud Wood, was killed.
Such flying is unforgiving of even small mistakes, which is why the pilots train so often. The risks are inevitable; it just goes to show the commitment that every Blue Angel has to the mission, their country, and their role of inspiring millions of people and promoting a culture of excellence.
The U.S. Congress has previously questioned whether the Blue Angels’ mission is worth the cost of lives and the expense of taxpayer assets. But it has been decided that the team’s ability to inspire the nation and recruit personnel to the military is unmatched. Simply put, no other means of marketing or outreach even comes close.
“The recruiting command in the Navy had statistics that showed that whenever the Blue Angels came into an airshow site, the recruitment, and actual contract signing of both officer and enlisted people, went so far off the charts that they couldn’t even be charted,” recalled former Blues pilot John Fogg, who flew with the team from 1973 to 1974.
From Legacy to Super
The Blue Angels’ 75th year also marked the team’s first year flying in a new jet: the F/A-18 Super Hornet. After flying the Legacy Hornets for over 30 years, the Supers are newer, bigger, louder, and more powerful. The transition to a new jet created different challenges during the team’s annual winter training, which takes place in El Centro, California, prior to every airshow season.
The transition was not only a challenge for the pilots, but also for the maintenance crews who have had to learn what the Super Hornets need, and how they wear and tear over the course of an airshow season.
The team was given 11 Super Hornets, all of which are early production models that the first Super Hornet squadron (VFA-115) used to train pilots in the early 2000s. The jets were refurbished and modified in Jacksonville, Florida, for the team’s specific needs — for example, adding airshow smoke tanks and special fuel pumps for longer inverted flight. A 40-pound sling was added to the control stick, which resists movement to help the pilots make smaller control inputs. Civilian-friendly avionics were also installed, in addition to repainting the jets with their famed blue-and-gold colors, of course.
Overall, the public doesn’t see much of a difference in the demo itself with the new Super Hornets; it’s still as awe-inspiring as ever. And the team’s 75th year has gone incredibly well, with some fantastic moments shared by thousands of people on various social media platforms.
Behind The Scenes
A total of 17 officers serve on the Blue Angels team, with three new jet pilots selected each year (typically), as well as two support officers, and one Marine Corps pilot for the team’s C-130J Hercules, known as Fat Albert. Roughly 100 enlisted sailors and marines make up the maintenance and support side of the team, with alternating crews of about 45 members traveling to each show site.
“We trust our maintenance department through and through,” said Blue Angel 4, LCdr James Cox. “We are obviously very close with our crew chiefs, but also have very good relationships with all the maintenance shops, because they are the ones who prepare our airplanes for our airshows. We just trust them wholeheartedly to make sure the jets are ready to go.”
According to AM1 Crew Chief David Bluhm, making sure Blue Angels pilots have “the number one product” is the priority. One fact that the team takes great pride in is that over their 75-year history, not once have they had to cancel an airshow due to a maintenance problem.
For Cox, “demo days are always a blast,” he said. “Typically, we push to the airfield about 1.5 to two hours prior to our briefing. Fifteen to 20 minutes is our focus time, so we’ll sit down and go over our lines . . . we’ll think about how the weather will affect our flying; think about any hazards for the day; and we’ll chair-fly some maneuvers prior to the brief to make sure we are 100 percent ready to go.”
Angels Over Alaska
I have had the privilege of working with the Blues on a few different media projects this year. Back in July, I was honored to join the Alaska Air National Guard’s 168th Wing/168th Air Refueling Squadron as they supported the Blue Angels’ journey to Eielson Air Force Base (AFB), Alaska, for an airshow. The USAF provides aerial refueling to the team on their long cross-country flights between shows, saving the Blues from making several long and unnecessary stops along the way. Such cooperation demonstrates the teamwork between both military branches, and helps the team accomplish their mission week after week.
Our mission called for refueling the team twice on their journey from Washington State, north over British Columbia, and into Alaska. Maintainers ensured our KC-135 tanker was ready. We conducted a thorough briefing, then drove out to meet our plane and went over emergency procedures. We were taking 75,000 pounds of fuel, more than enough to ensure the Blues made it safely to Fairbanks. With pre-flight procedures done, we started up and took off, heading south.
It was a typical cloudy day below us, with most of Alaska hidden from view. Before we knew it, Blue Angels Boss was on the radio, and the team joined us on either side of our KC-135. I could actually hear them before I saw them, with Boss seemingly looking straight at me through the window, as Blue Angel 7 (piloted by LCdr Julius Bratton) positioned behind our tanker for the first refueling.
The air was bumpy at times. While both the Blue Angels pilots and refueling operator on our KC-135 are all highly experienced (and made it look easy), it clearly was not. The F-18 jets refuel using a probe on the aircraft nose to “plug” themselves into a basket, or drogue, which is attached to a hose from the KC-135; with both the hose and jet bouncing around in the turbulence, it was more of a challenge than most would think.
Once connected, the actual refueling only takes a few minutes. One-by-one, each jet quenched their thirst, rotating back to each side of the KC-135 as we all flew closer to Fairbanks.
After the last refueling, we requested that the team form their signature Delta Formation for an air-to-air shoot over Alaska and Denali National Park. Boss and the team agreed, and provided us with some spectacular views of the Super Hornets together, as the clouds parted below us to reveal Alaska’s iconic mountainous landscape.
“This is so much more than flying blue jets,” said Blue Angel 4, Cox. “It’s representing the Navy and Marine Corps to all those airshow sites — and really to the world, who might not otherwise know what naval aviation is. Part of the team’s ethos is to ensure a culture of excellence. Whether the [people] that we get to reach out to want to be military pilots, or doctors, or lawyers, our job now is to be able to get in front of them and show that culture of excellence.
“Being able to have an impact on anybody out there is not something we take lightly,” he continued, “and if we are able to affect the life of just one person, then the whole thing is worth it.”
The team is currently wrapping up a successful 75th year across some 30 airshow sites. Their final show will be their homecoming in Pensacola on Nov. 5 to 6, flying on the beach and thanking their hometown and families for all their support.
A special thanks to the Alaska Air National Guard’s 168th Wing and 168th Air Refueling Squadron, as well as Blue Angels Public Affairs Officer, Lt Chelsea Dietlin.