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Blue Angels flying requires focus on diet and fitness


 Pensacola Beach air show 2015 featuring the Blue Angels.

Lt. Matt Suyderhoud shakes hands with a crew member.
Lt. Matt Suyderhoud shakes hands with a crew member.

Behind the scenes of the U.S. Navy Blue Angels’ breathtaking, precision flying is an intense regimen of weight training and healthy eating. The pilots are often compared to professional athletes because of the physical intensity and skill required to fly with the team. Lt. Matt Suyderhoud, who is serving his second year with the team, knows exactly what it takes to be a Blue Angel and says the description is spot on. “The combination of the mental and physical aspects of this flight demonstration are comparable to professional athletics,” he said. Unlike other jet pilots, the elite aviators fly without anti-g (gravitational) suits that inflate around a pilot’s legs to keep blood in the upper body and to prevent them from passing out in high-g maneuvers. They do not wear the suits because the inflatable bladders in the legs interfere with their ability to control the flight stick and move the jets into the team’s famous tight formations. The six, F/A-18 Hornets often fly within inches of each other. Flying with the Blue Angels also requires getting used to flying with a 40-pound spring attached to a flight stick. The spring is added to the team’s jets because it allows for very precise movements of the aircraft. Pilots say controlling the device feels like doing a 40-pound curl throughout the 45-minute demonstrations. Adapting to the spring and getting used to doing high-g maneuvers without wearing a flight suit is physically and mentally draining, Suyderhoud and other pilots said. “There is that mental stress of memorizing the maneuvers and the com and all the procedures that go along with the flight demonstration. It all culminates and your neck is sore, your back is sore, your elbow is sore, your wrist is sore,” Suyderhoud said. “You wake up in the middle of the night reciting maneuvers with your wrist clenched, your hand clenched underneath your pillow like you are flying the jet from the spring. That still happens to me.” But Suyderhoud said the experience of Blue Angel flying is worth the stress.

Blue Angels pilots prepare for demonstration

 “You go out there and you kind of feel naked because you don’t have all the survival gear, you don’t have the extra radios and all that stuff that you normally carry when you are going into combat or training for combat,” he said. “You really strap the airplane on you and go flying, which is awesome.” Lt. Cmdr. Joe Schwartz, the team’s flight surgeon, monitors the pilots and helps them to stay in the top physical shape required to fly the demonstrations. An average person can withstand a gravitational force of about 2.5 to 3 times their body weight before they pass out, he said. The 7 or 8 g maneuvers routinely performed by Blue Angels pilots require intense training, he said. “They are pulling 7 or 8 gs multiple times during the demonstrations. In Pensacola, it is hot. They are sweating so they are going to lose a lot of intravascular volume, a lot of blood pressure that they need to keep the blood in their head,” he said. “As the show goes on, they get more and more tired and they need to be more strict to stay ahead of the jet and ahead of the g that is coming. They need to know exactly when to squeeze their legs, when to squeeze their legs and butt, when to bring in the abs and when to do the full hick maneuver.”

Left Wing Pilot, Lt. Andy Talbott, U.S. Navy flight demonstration squadron, the Blue Angels, flies over Shadetree Range, Calif., during a training sortie. The Blue Angels are conducting winter training where pilots must complete 120 practice flights before kicking off the 2015 air show season at Naval Air Facility El Centro March 14. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Michael Lindsey/Released) 

During the hick or anti-g straining maneuver, the pilots make a hick-sounding grunt to close the glottis, which is located behind the Adam’s Apple. The maneuver helps to control the flow of blood and prevent passing out. Especially dangerous are maneuvers that go from high gs to negative gs, Schwartz said. “You will see maneuvers where No. 4 rolls upside down and then does an inverted climb out. He is pulling like three gs, putting three times his pressure into his head and then he is going to flip that jet over real quick,” Schwartz said. “There is a big danger there. That is what will kill people because if you are behind it and not on your g strain, you are obviously going to have a problem.” Blue Angels pilot Kevin Davis died in a 2007 air show crash. Investigators said he failed to perform the anti-g straining maneuver and became disoriented, which caused him to lose control of the jet.” Schwartz watches the demonstrations and prepares to call the pilots over the radio if it appears they are not responding after one of the maneuvers. The danger is that they could experience ALOC, almost loss of consciousness.

“We have our hands on the button ready to start calling their name because that’s the only thing that has been shown to pull you out of that kind of funk to get you to be able to right the jet,” Schwartz said.

t is something he hasn’t had to do during his two years on the team. Schwartz said his goal is to be proactive in monitoring pilots and doing whatever he can to help them stay in the physical condition they need to be in to do the job. “It is such a unique and dangerous thing. Just sitting here and saying ‘go to the gym’ doesn’t work,” said Schwartz, who often watches the pilots work out or works out with them. Hydration and diet are key to the body’s ability to fight g forces, he said. The pilots limit their intake of alcohol and caffeine and they are required to work out six days a week. “That’s mandatory, no kidding,” Schwartz said. “The core is huge. The glutes, the big muscles down here in the mid part of the body that are going to take up a lot of blood and be able to squeeze out blood like a sponge, those are the ones we need to work out the most.” He does not encourage the pilots to do long-distance runs because that lowers blood pressure. “You get a marathon runner in here with a resting heart rate of 40 and they are not going to do well in the jet because they are not going to have that quick physiological response when they are put under stress. We want a rapid blood pressure increase, heart rate increase when these guys are under stress,” he said. Lt. Andy Talbott is in his second year flying with the team. “If I do a run that is longer distance, it is no more than two or three miles, and I run it at a very fast pace,” he said.

Lt. Andy Talbott, Blue Angels pilot

He carries a bottle of water throughout the day to ensure he stays hydrated and pays careful attention to his diet, eating mostly natural meats and raw fruits and vegetables and avoiding high carbohydrate foods.
“If I don’t stay hydrated I have work to harder in the aircraft to combat the gs,” he said. “If you come in and chug a bottle of water in the morning, it’s too late. You have to stay ahead of the hydration by drinking water the day before.”
Because the team is on the road for much of the year, Talbott brings healthy meals that are prepared in advance with him on the road.
“I am in the best shape I have been in in my life because this has forced me to really think about my eating habits so much more. It’s a very motivating environment,” said Talbott, who helps other pilots with physical training.
The team’s constant training cycle ensures that current team members stay in shape and it sets a tone for new pilots who come to the team each year, he said.
“As soon as our season ends here in Pensacola, we start the training for the next season. Training is constant throughout the two or three years you are on this team,”  he said.

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