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Blue Angels’ first Pensacola museum practice draws huge crowd

The Blue Angels had their first practice of the 2017 season at the National Naval Aviation Museum

Thousands of enthusiastic fans gathered outside Pensacola’s National Naval Aviation Museum on Tuesday to watch the Blue Angels’ first public practice of the 2017 air show season.

The line for the 11:30 a.m. show began forming at 8 a.m., and organizers said nearly 6,000 people watched the hour-long practice from the museum’s viewing area at Pensacola Naval Air Station. Thousands more watched from locations outside the base as the six F/A-18 Hornet pilots performed the team’s iconic maneuvers.

“I just want to get up there with them. It was so beautiful,” longtime fan Judy Morrissey said after the show.

Morrissey, who was one of the first people in line early Tuesday, said she was excited to see the team back in Pensacola following winter training in El Centro, California.

A big crowd is expected again on Wednesday when a pilot autograph session is scheduled inside the museum after the practice.

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Nancy Huffine, a tourist from West Frankfort, Illinois, didn’t realize the Blue Angels would be flying Tuesday when she and her husband visited the museum.

“It was an unexpected treat,” she said. “We hadn’t seen them for a few years, and this was just fantastic.”

Fans packed the 1,000-seat viewing platform, a grassy hill behind the platform and the standing-room section nearby.

Some of the fans paid tribute to U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Jeff Kuss, a 2016 Blue Angels pilot who died in a Tennessee air show crash in June.

“We shouldn’t forget him and what he did for his country,” said Sheryl Eller.

The Pensacola woman said she hopes 2017 will be a better year for the team.

“It never gets old, watching them fly,” she said.

Zach Howard, 2, was among the youngest fans in the crowd on Tuesday. Wearing a Blue Angels baseball cap, he pointed to the sky as the jets got ready to take off.

His father, Jeff Howard, has followed the team since he was 5. The Pensacola man said he wanted to share the experience with his young son. Seeing the first Pensacola practice of 2017 was special, he said.

After so many years watching the elite pilots, Howard notices the fine details of the performances.

“I like to see how close they are together and how fast they fly,” he said.

Wayne Smith, a part-time Pensacola resident from Clinton, Ohio, was the first person in line for Tuesday’s practice.

Smith, who is retired, said the show is always worth the wait.

“I’m not concerned about the wait, I didn’t even look at my watch,” said Smith, who was looking forward to seeing the 2017 team for the first time.

“Every team is different,” he said.

Morrissey, whose husband is a retired Navy pilot, was second in the long line.

Morrissey’s adult nephew, Sam Motter, is also a huge fan of the team. Motter is mentally disabled and his aunt said the 2016 pilots were especially kind to him, singling him out at autograph sessions and taking time to talk to him about the aircraft. Motter was also in the line early Tuesday and pointed and cheered throughout the practice.

After the practice, Motter said Cmdr. Ryan Bernacchi was his favorite pilot.

“He is the best,” Motter said.

The Blue Angels practice outside the museum most Tuesdays and Wednesdays from late March through early November. Museum volunteers, many of whom are former Navy pilots, narrate the show for the crowd. Practices usually start at 11:30, but the museum encourages visitors to check its website, navalaviationmuseum.org, for the most up-to-date schedule.

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