NAVAL AVIATION NEWS
Published in the June 1976, Issue of Naval Aviation News
. . . and left echelon rolls . . . and knife edge passes . . . and farvels and . . .
The U.S. Navy's Flight Demonstration Squadron is well into its 30th anniversary season. The Blue Angels took to the air for the first time in June 1946. Since then more than 125 million spectators around the world have witnessed their unsurpassed brand of flying excellence. Each year during a two-month prelude to the air-show season, the squadron goes through an intense all-hands training evolution. NAF El Centro, Calif., in the Blues' winter home.
They're up before the sun on the start of a workday unlike any other in Naval Aviation. In BOQ rooms they shower, shave and pull on the tailored, light-blue flight suits. A quick but sufficient breakfast follows. Then, fore and aft caps peaked; they make their way to the ready room, a few hundred yards across the tranquil air base. Time clicks toward six thirty. The desert sun, hidden below the horizon, has painted lingering clouds a radiant red.
The ready room is housed in a wooden, beige-colored structure capped with a half-cylinder roof. Similar buildings sprawl across and characterize the operational side of the base. The room itself is spartan but spacious. Inexpensive deep blue curtains cover the windows. The furniture includes a pair of vinyl-covered chairs and facing couches. There's a coffeepot, sump light on, styrofoam cups, TV set - with a video tape backup - and a blackboard.
Outside, as subtle as the changing tide, the sky has begun its transition from grey-black to the grey-blue of a new morning. A Fingernail moon hangs over the mountains.
In the dim light, maintenance crews are already at work. The six Skyhawks wait, wingtip to wingtip, silent sentinels. The muffled growl of a service vehicle and the staccato barking of a human voice are the only sounds which momentarily crack the hush of daybreak.
In the ready room, Barbara Walters is articulating news headlines on the tube - it's after nine in New York. Three of the pilots are watching. The commanding officer of the U.S. Navy's Flight Demonstration Squadron enters and takes his seat. Ms Walters is quickly turned off.
The skipper, Commander Casey Jones, checks his watch and with uncommon alacrity for the hour, announces, "OK, it's six thirty-two - let's brief it."
Marine Captain Bill "Dog" Holverstott and Navy Lieutenants Al "Taco" Cisneros and John "JP" Patton shift slightly in their chairs. There is no stiffening of postures, no isometric bracing. But the Blue Angels have begun another patented exercise in relaxed concentration.
At this point in the winter training evolution, these diamond plots work apart from the soloists. Lieutenants Denny Sapp and John Miller will brief a little later and practice their flight routines separately. In a few days, six-plane work begins. But for the time being, Sapp, in his second year, functions as a kind of secondary flight leader and assists in the grooming of John Miller, new to the team as the Number Six Blue Angel.
Today's hops will occur over the El Centro field. Until mow the Blues worked above the parched floor of a restricted are a few miles away. Because it's the 1976 team's first flight in view of the squadron's maintenance men, there is a flavor of anticipation in the atmosphere. Just about every Blue Angel will tell you that the troops are their most salient judges.
The Boss commences a verbal journey through the impending flight. He defines the sequence from walk-down to shut-down as each of the flyers projects himself beyond the briefing spaces into his cockpit. In what might be called a classic exercise in special orientation, they make a "think trip" through each moment of motion.
The brief is not unlike one in a regular squadron. But some expressions distinguish it from the mundane. Terms like farvel, compress it, tuck away break and smoke-on reflect activities germane to the Blue Angels.
And there are some noticeable absences. None of the pilots use kneeboards. Slot-man Patton explains, "Once we start the takeoff roll my eyes are riveted to One, Two and Three and stay that way till we're back on the ground. We wouldn't have an extra second to scan a kneeboard anyway."
The Blues don't wear G suits. The continuous inflation-deflation would be decidedly distracting. Beyond the personal equipment, there are no telephones ringing abrasively as might be the case in some ready rooms. No teletype machines chattering away with fox corpens, divert field weather and other data.
The absences reflect the unfettered nature of Blue Angel operations and hint at one of the joys in being a Blue. These carefully selected pilots are assigned, as Taco asserts. "To honor a standard that is expected by superiors, and to demonstrate it." In pursuit of that goal, they are not encumbered by extraneous matters.
The Blue Angel experience, therefore, is an exercise in pure unadulterated flying.
In the briefing, basics are emphasized - airspeed, power, Gs. And, before the brief ends, there's a Natops and safety question of the day.
Dog Holverstott, who is the safety officer, has the last work. "Remember," he begins, "no maneuver starts without acknowledgements from each wingman . . . there may be a tendency in an actual air show to stay with an undesirable situation longer than we would in a training environment, like here at El Centro. So, think about it. Say you're canopy to belly, upside down, and you get a problem. Have it in the back of your mind where you are and where you'd go to get clear. How long do you stay with an undesirable situation? Well, they pay us to make decisions like that."
With such nourishing food for thought, the brief ends and the pilots file out to the hangar and the A-4Fs. It's 0738.
The sun, a burning bronze disc, is in its upward arc through the California sky.
Nonchalant exchanges with the crew fellow as the pilots sign out for the airplanes. The four then saunter toward the still silent sentinels. Then, subtly, a transformation occurs. The flyers become erect military figures.
The walk-down begins with them marching abreast, then peeling away individually toward the aircraft, saluting the crew chiefs and briskly climbing aboard. Seconds later the engines are ignited. Fuel and air clash in controlled explosions inside the Skyhawks. Tapered shafts of shimmering heat shoot out the tails.
On signal, like puppets with a single master, the clamshell canopies are pulled shut. The taxi-out begins.
Slowly, the jets diminish en route to the distant approach end. As they shrink, the drone of the power plants becomes a gentle hiss. The ground force lingers along the fringe of the parking apron. They have seen hundreds of Blue Angel takeoffs but the excitement of the start of a show never dims. In fact it seems to mount. On a nearby UHF monitor, the Boss' voice is relaxed, "Run 'em up." The far away din grows into a powerful ominous roar, "Off the brakes now." It's 0802.
Like thoroughbreds at the gate, the Skyhawks jolt momentarily. Then, four bullets welded together, they accelerate gracefully. "Up we go," announces the Boss and the flight leaves the ground. JP, out on the flank, calls "Gear," and 12 wheels fold forward and up, chased swiftly inside the machines by the closing wheel well doors. "OK, JP coming left." Patton slides in behind Lead. The diamond is formed.
The bullets whine high and away behind the "crowd." They swing through the sky in a wide oval-shaped turn for the inaugurating formation pass. The Boss banks the team steeply in a left-wing-down turn. A precisely aligned diamond shape is presented to the onlookers. It's somewhat of an illusion because of the angle between crowd and aircraft. JP has actually slid up behind Dog on the right wing to achieve the proper disposition.
They pass along a theoretical center line which parallels the audience, then away from view. A moment or so later, the Skipper brings them back with a matter-of-fact "Coming left . . . diamond roll."
Each command by Casey Jones prompts a staccato string of acknowledgements from the wingmen. With rifle shot brevity, they sound off. "Dog, Taco, JP."
Then Lead flies them through a gentle, attractive aileron roll.
After the changeover roll comes one of the more difficult events - the line abreast loop. Done properly, the Skyhawks wheel through the 360 degrees as if they were impaled, wingtips through wingtips, by a single rod. Heads are twisted uncomfortably 90 degrees. Two, Three and Slot must hold fast through the circle. Any deviation from rank can be discerned without difficulty by the average viewer.
JP probably has the toughest task on this one for he is one plane removed from Lead and literally must fly formation on both Leak and Taco, adjacent to him. "If I can't see the Boss," Says JP, "that means I'm on Taco alone and I can't guarantee I'm in proper perspective with the Skipper."
Adds Dog, "We try to use a total sight picture for reference. I'm generally watching the wing root and the area forward of that. If I stared at the wiggling wingtip of my neighbor, I'd fly a wiggling formation on it." The Blues deal in inches. To be sure, each pilot is laboring constantly with every amount of physical and mental energy at his disposal. The cockpits are air conditioned, but if they weren't you can bet there would be a whole lot of sweating going on.
The diamond roll and loop are executed with elegance and grace. The left echelon roll, a feature event which has helped distinguish Blue Angel excellence from that of other top demonstration units, is completed with mid-season form.
Only the true aviation aficionado can appreciated this difficult endeavor - the abbreviated arc through which the tail-end Charlies must fly while maintaining position.
For the farvel, The Blues approach at low altitude. About two miles out, the wingmen spread away momentarily from the Boss who flips his A-4 over without displacing it from its track. Like an elastic band, the formation then retracts. By the time they cross the center point, the wingmen are hugging the inverted lead aircraft in good shape. But there was difficulty at the outset of the maneuver, some momentary jostling. The reason will become clear later, in the debrief. Seems that once he tipped onto his back, Casey found himself looking straight into the sum for a few unsettling microseconds.
Perhaps the most ornate entry in the Blue Angel sequence is the fleur-de-lis. Today's versions go pleasingly well. But if it is the most ornate, surely the delta loop break is the most theatrical. Normally performed with six Blues, it conjures drama even with only a quartet on stage.
The team races gracefully across the sky and begins an upward arc. Up, up, up, goes the formation, aiming skyward. It peaks and tips gently over into a downward curve, aimed directly at the ground.
Suddenly, the formation bursts apart. Each plane splits away. Smoke-trails blossom behind the plummeting profiles. They look like darts flung simultaneously and with great force toward earth.
But there is a symmetry to this maneuver. Each aircraft is evenly spaced from the others. And, at frightening proximity to the terrain, each plunge is terminated. In unison, the planes rise up and curl through three-quarter loops. These half-cuban eights bring the flyers into convergent tracks toward a center point. Then, whoosh, whoosh, whoosh, whoosh! They whip by each other in an eye-blurring, heart-stopping crisscross. It doesn't look like it, but their lateral separation is abundant. In a few days there will be two more shooshes by that center point.
Since every training and air-show flight is recorded on video tape, the Blues will have an opportunity to study just how all that crisscross went. The machine's stop-action feature unveils any departure from precision. For the general viewer, however, it looks like all the jets whizzed across at the same time.
Interspersed with these elaborate gestures of airmanship are the delta roll and a new maneuver for the 1976 team - the double V loop. Three aircraft form individual V's, one behind the other, and enscribe a circle in the sky.
The flight nears its conclusion with a tuck under break. The flyers whirl through three-quarter rolls, dispatching cosmetic patterns of smoke, then work their way back to each other for the division landing. This is an especially taxing maneuver. As Taco admits, "Getting the interval right is not easy, in fact, it's an awful lot of work."
The Skyhawks merge and turn smoothly inbound for the finale.
They swoop slowly toward the runway. Like trained falcons alighting on the master's hand, the leg-like landing wheels reach out for the concrete surface. In the slot, Patton touches down first. "JP's down'" he reports, signaling it's OK for Lead and company to effect their landings.
Taxi-back is routine and the crew chiefs direct the birds into the chocks. Shut-down is simultaneous. It's 0836 and the singing engines sigh away. A welcome quiet sweeps across the ramp. The clam shells open in unison. Dog, Taco and JP gaze at the Skipper. Each pilot has his hands forward, lightly grasping the windscreen. The Boss' upward flip of joined fingers means OK, let's climb out. And four left legs effortlessly precede the four trim figures as the Blue Angels come back down to earth.
The walk back is formal until they pass the perimeter of the parking ramp. Finally the unseen pressure dissipates and the pilots regain a relaxed stride. A first class petty officer, observing the approaching foursome, turns to a small gathering of the crew and says flatly, "Pretty good for the first time this year."
After a brief break, the pilots are back in the blue-curtained room, debriefing. The post-flight sessions are held in closed-door confidence where they get down to some very technical and energetic discussions on how things went, right or wrong. The video tape is analyzed in detail.
The camera tells no lies. In athletics the real-time flurry of action might conceal a missed block which will show up nakedly in the Monday morning movies. It's the same with the Blues.
There is no fixing of blame. These are extraordinarily mature professionals, totally devoted to the pursuit of perfection. No one is immune from a mistake and each, at one time or another, will commit one - although it's been a proven and traditional truth that errors are not common events. Still, the team is only halfway through the training phase.
Boss Jones is in his first year. He is not above seeking and accepting counsel from, say, John Patton, the third-year Blue Angel veteran.
"How about that rendezvous after the tuck under break?" Jones asks.
"We're OK," replies JP, "but I think we might be hurrying to get the gear down. We've got plenty of time from the one eighty on, so I think we can hold it a bit before going dirty."
Jones comments, "I have the feeling I might be taxing a bit too fast."
"Feels good to me, sir," replies Dog. The others nod in agreement. And so it goes.
Moments later, they're briefing for the second go. The same attention to detail, the same relaxed concentration is there. The soloists have finished their sequence and are inbound to the line as the diamond members get ready for their second walk-down on the day.
The next show is a favorable repeat of the first and is followed by an unhurried debrief.
Lunch is next and by 1400 another phase of training, nearly as vital as piloting the Skyhawks, begins. It's exercise time. And we mean exercise. Handball, tennis, golf, jogging, whatever. Each Blue has his own physical conditioning program. Although their right arms are naturally strengthened by the continuous flying with nose-down trim, the balance of their bodies requires a rigorous regimen. Each man has his own preference for athletic interests but for the next two to four hours all are sweating away, toning muscles and coordination.
In the air, they are under the stress of G forces off and on throughout the 30 to 35 minute demonstration. Since anti-gravity suits aren't worn, that pressure is exerted directly on the body. Flying with nose-down trim, incidentally, enhances the "feel" of the plane and constitutes a steady 10 to 20 pound pull on the stick.
Beyond the flying demands which require strength and endurance, traveling from one sight to another nearly every weekend on the season will take its toll. And the Blues know they must be ready for that.
Not long after dinner, darkness settles over the southern flank of California. The Blue Angels are thinking of soon calling it a day. In the weeks that follow, as they polish the diamonds and the delta vertical breaks and the knife edge passes, they will pursue that standard of excellence which is the heritage of the Navy' Flight Demonstration Squadron. Being a Blue Angel is an esteemed professional achievement and each must labor with all his capabilities to sustain that standard and that heritage. And they must be up before the sun tomorrow.