Published in the January 1957 issue of Naval Aviation News
Photographer: Harry Burns of Grumman Aircraft
Author Unknown

Spectators’ gasps of amazement, trepidation, and admiration are clearly audible to each other in the stark silence following the screaming jet blasts of the maneuvering Blue Angels at any of their exhibitions. Even to aviator, who can, from experience, understand the hazards of such wingtip to wingtip precision, the compact, 500 mph formation work done by these Naval Aviators is equally as amazing as to the layman.

How does a Naval Aviator, even as highly trained as they are, acquire the ability and confidence to be a Blue Angel? And especially, how can a man step into the shoes of such leaders as Zeke Cormier, Ray Hawkins, Johnny Magda, Dusty Rhodes, R. A. Clark, and Butch Voris? Out of hundreds of good pilots, how would he be selected? A short visit to the home of the Blue Angels, at Pensacola, brought forth some of the answers.

Except for the first leader, Butch Voris, the normal method of selection of a new leader has been in accordance with the wishes of the team members. He is chosen from pilots they had been stationed with, and known by reputation. However, in the case of the new leader, Cdr. E. B. (Ed) Holly, the selection was made from a number of willing candidates recommended by various activities. He was known by Cdr. Zeke Cormier, his predecessor, personally, and by reputation. All men being considered for the job are first approached to find out their desires in the matter. Even though it is not sea duty, it is just about the same, since about two-thirds of the time, the team is away from home.

Breaking in a leader is usually a gradual process. It is dictated by his experience and recent assignments. If he has done a lot of formation flying recently, he doesn’t need so much preparation. But of prime importance to qualify a leader, is practice in each position of the four-plane formation. In gaining this experience, he acquires an idea of the problems of each of his team members, and can conduct his leadership accordingly.

Other team members are given a choice of positions. It is dome by trial (without error, since one error could really louse up the team). Some pilots can fly more smoothly on the left, and certain others on the right. The slot of "tail end Charlie" position is, of course, different, and it is quite difficult to fly.

An aerodynamic phenomenon known as ‘proximity effect’ is the toughest thing to control in tight formations such as the Blue Angels fly. Air speeds of between 400 and 500 mph cause an air build-up ahead of the wings, fuselage and tail surfaces. These guild-ups tend to push other planes out of the way, and out of formation, actually causing inadvertent wing movements of planes in the formation. In the familiar diamond formation, the leader is affected by build-ups from all members of the team, whereas other members are affected by only one or two of the others. By constant practice, the leader is eventually able to anticipate in which direction the proximity effect is going to come from in each maneuver, and in what sequence the effects will arrive. Thus, he can guard against them.

Zeke Cormier explained that, to break in a new member, leader or otherwise, it is necessary for him to first get the maneuvers down pat, solo or with another member, and gradually work into the diamond and echelon. "Of course," he said, "this is the only flight exhibition team in the world to land four planes at one time. This can’t be practiced solo."

Ed Holley told how he felt about it. "I’ve flown a lot of jets and like them, but this is the first time I’ve flown this close to the ground except on takeoff and landing. I realize that to have people see us and to witness how the Navy training teaches a pilot to control a plane in a precise manner, that we have to get down to where they can see us. But it sure gave me a start, on the first few flights, every time I got inverted and the ground seemed so doggone close."

"Pilots don’t realize how close the Angels fly until they’ve experienced it. Naval Aviators are taught two types of formation – parade and cruise. Parade formation is flown with the wingman 45 degrees bearing aft of beam, ten feet below the plane in front, with the wingtip two feet to the right or left. In cruise formation, the wingmen hold 60 degrees bearing, with a 20 foot step-down and ‘slag’ i.e. being free to change sides to maintain position on the lead plane. The Blue Angels fly the same basic rules, using a parade formation."

Zeke Cormier had a few more comments to make. "You can tell within a foot whether a man is in position. We use a two-to-four foot tolerance, but air currents, turbulence, proximity effect, smoothness of lead (it may be a good or bad day for the leader), sometimes louse up the tolerance. Confidence in your plane, yourself and the other team members is all-important. Just as with students in basic training, worrying about self, plane or traffic has much effect on whether it is a good or bad formation."

Zeke feels that the team, in the last year, has had a closer feeling and a better appreciation of individual and collective confidence that at any time since he has known it. He further feels that this team spirit will be something that will be appreciated by his successor and the future members of the Angels. "The team spirit is a refinement of, and more easily recognized as the spirit prevailing through the entire Navy."

A veteran Angel, Lt. Ed McKellar, started with Ray Hawkins as leader. He said: "I thought there was nobody like him. It’s a great team and I’m proud to have served on it. You know how the Navy works. You don’t stay on the team long enough to know just how each new member operates, just get a good idea, and then a transfer. But you’re on long enough to get the spirit and become imbued with it. For my money, it’s not long enough, but, as I said, you know the Navy. And I wouldn’t have any other life."

Another veteran, Lt. Nello Pierozzi, was in sick bay at the time of our visit. During rehearsal of a new opening maneuver, where four planed come down from four different directions and cross over in the center of the field at minimum altitude, he had to pull his controls extra hard to avoid another member of the team. Closing rate was 1000 mph. Result, a strained muscle in his back. But he was raring to get back to work.

Lt. Bill Gureck said that the new leader is fast smoothing out the rough spots. "The boys like Ed fine. He’s very conscientious, and has drawn from his experience as a combat pilot to check small deviations of newly assigned wingmen, although he is still working on the specialized maneuvers flown by the team."

"The crew feels that he will be an excellent leader and is 100% behind him. The maintenance men have confidence in him and the pilots echo the sentiment. And equally, the pilots have confidence in the maintenance men. In the work-worn palms of these men lie the lives of the pilots."

An example of team spirit and reciprocal feeling came when a leading Chief of the group said: "Excuse me, Mr. Gureck, how much money do we have in the Rec. (recreation) Fund?"

"Not very much," said Lt. Gureck, "but I think we should do something for the boys."

"That," said the Chief, "is something I agree on. How about a party? We’ve been working pretty hard."

Lt. Gureck agreed. "I’ll tell the Skipper I talked to you and I’m sure he will agree."

There is no doubt as to the mutual feeling of respect and confidence between crew and pilots. One of Ed Holley’s first projects is to try to get a better per diem deal for the men. He feels that the present system under which they are working, due to a technicality, is inequitable.

Ltjg. Robert L. Rasmussen had been flying with the Angels for about a week – a try-out period. He said: "The most startling thing I faced when first flying on wing was the actual distance the aircraft in diamond are separated. I used to watch them and thought it was an optical illusion, they looked so close. Now I know it’s no illusion. I think now I can do it. I think it’s no feat of superior stunt pilots, but that any average Naval Aviator, with fighter background, can do it with practice and the driving desire. I intend to practice until I get it."

Dave Scheur, Grumman Aircraft representative with the team, has seen the show hundreds of times. He said: "It still feel the same as when I first saw it in 1951, when Butch Voris reorganized the team after Korea. Two original members were on it, coming from VF-191, Pat Murphy and Ray Hawkins."

And so the short visit went. The answers to our questions were there, similar, and yet different. But they all added up to hard work, background, and experience, confidence in self, team members and planes, and lots and lots of practice and training.

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