The U.S. Navy Blue Angels delighted thousands of hometown fans on Friday, the first day of the team’s annual end-of-season Homecoming Air Show at Pensacola Naval Air Station.
“It was amazing, fantastic,” said Nicole Mitness of Tallahassee, as she looked up to catch the final series of maneuvers performed by the elite fighter jet demonstration team.
The six blue-and-gold F/A-18 Hornets thrilled the crowd for more than 30 minutes with their breathtaking and iconic loops, rolls, high-speed passes and formations.
The Blue Angels will close their 2017 season on Saturday, the final day of the homecoming show.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, watched Friday’s show with base commander Capt. Christopher Martin and Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward.
“It is an absolutely phenomenal demonstration of skill and dedication,” said Rubio, who met with the team after the show.
Rubio joked with the pilots, asking whether they could give him a fast ride back to Miami in one of the F/A-18s.
Also watching the show with Rubio and other dignitaries was Ryan Chamberlin, one of the team’s two solo pilots in 2016. Chamberlin is now with the Navy’s Office of Legislative Affairs.
Chamberlin gave the 2017 team good marks for Friday’s performance.
“It was a great demonstration,” said Chamberlin, who added that he misses being part of the team.
Many former Blue Angels pilots and crew members usually attend the homecoming shows.
GEICO Skytypers perform aerobatics during 2017 Blue Angels Homecoming Air Show.
Capt. Ryan Bernacchi, commander of the 2017 team, has said the former Blues are always the team’s toughest critics because they know what it takes to fly the precision demonstration.
Less critical were 9-year-old Landon Killebrew and his younger brother and sister. The kids live near the base and often watch the Blue Angels fly over their house.
The Killebrew siblings were excited when a sailor handed them small posters with pictures of Blue Angels planes.
Their mother, Ashley Killebrew, said the family outing took some planning.
“But it was worth it, because they love being here,” she said.
The U.S. Navy SEALS Leapfrogs parachute demonstration team was also a big hit with the Pensacola crowd. The SEALS jumped out of a C-130 plane and made colorful smoke trails on their way to the ground.
Blue Angel pilots get ready for take-off.
Jim Woods, the team’s safety officer, had a big smile on his face when he landed.
“This jump is special because it is here in Pensacola. My family is watching,” said Woods, a Woodham High School graduate, as he landed. “It’s amazing to get to jump into my hometown.”
His sister, Miriam Woods, was among those watching. She gave her brother a hug.
Miriam Woods said her brother has taken her on a tandem parachute jump.
“The time we were flying through the air before the chute opened was the best part,” she said.
Friday’s show also had night performances including a demonstration by Jason Khammany, who planed to race a Lamborghini Gallardo down the tarmac against an airplane flying above.
Khammany works for Precision Exotics, a South Florida company that offers rides in the Lamborghini and other expensive sports cars.
The Lamborghini can top 205 miles per hour, he said.
“We do beat some of the planes,” he said.
Martin, the base’s commanding officer, said the homecoming show is one way for the base to thank Pensacola for its support of the military.
“It is our opportunity to give back to the community,” he said.
Hundreds of sailors, Marines, civilian base employees and volunteers spent months working to ensure the show’s success, he said.
“It’s a huge effort,” Martin said.
Martin, a Tennessee native, said air shows he watched as a child inspired him to become a naval aviator.
Martin visited Pensacola’s C.A. Weiss Elementary School on Wednesday to join students as they watched their principal fly with the Blue Angels.
Reaching youngsters and letting them know about the Navy and Marine Corps is an important part of the annual show, Martin said.
Holley Wingard of Andulusia, Alabama, clasped her hands over her 1-year-old son’s ears to mute the noise of the planes flying overhead.
Wingard said her family has made the show for the last three years.
“The kids absolutely love it, especially the Blue Angels,” she said.