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Blue Angels team describes life in flight

Lt. Cmdr. Brandon Hempler

After a brisk 56-minute flight from the Naval Air Station Pensacola in Pensacola, Florida, the U.S. Navy Blue Angels streaked into Owensboro on Thursday to set up for this weekend’s Owensboro Air Show.

Flying the #6 F/A -18 Hornet, wrapped in yellow and blue, was Lt. Cmdr. Brandon Hempler, who took some moments before an afternoon of practice to share what being a Blue Angel pilot was all about.

Hempler, originally from Kansas, said he felt right at home among the flat fields surrounding the Owensboro-Daviess County Regional Airport. As a kid, he said he always thought fighter planes were cool, and later studied aviation in college. As he continued to learn about aviation, he said he still had a passion for flying but didn’t really know where it was going to take him until he found out about the opportunities offered by the military.

“Being a military aviator – whether you’re piloting a helicopter, a fighter or whatever – it’s all important and plays a role,” he said. “I just wanted to be a part of that somehow and serve my country.”

Being a Blue Angels pilot is a highly competitive and sought-after position, but being a part of the team is a volunteer job added to a pilot’s duties as a Navy aviator. Hempler said serving with the team was an honor, and he saw it as a way to give back to the Navy.

Hempler said the Blue Angels operated as a team, but he wasn’t just referring to the pilots. Mechanics and maintainers, such as Sgt. Kyle Thompson of the U.S. Marine Corps, were also busy checking each fighter before it lifted off again for maneuvers.

Thompson, a 6-year member of the Corps who’s originally from Warren, Michigan, said being one of the unsung heroes keeping machines like the Blue Angels’ Hornets in the air was a childhood dream come to life.

“My dad was mechanic that worked on cars, and he would always take me to work with him,” Thompson said. “Growing up with that influence and always being mechanically inclined, being a Marine Corps mechanic was a dream come true for me.”

Thompson is part of a team of mechanics, called the Power Plants Workcenter, who travel with the Blue Angels to demonstrations around the country. As one of the lifelines keeping the planes in top shape, Thompson said the trust and bond between the pilots and mechanics become rock solid over time.

“We spend a lot of time together traveling from air show to air show,” Thompson. “That camaraderie and leadership builds together into a family.”

The Blue Angels flight demonstration team was ordered by then-Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Chester W. Nimitz at the end of World War II to keep the public interested in naval aviation. The Navy Flight Exhibition Team performed its first flight demonstration in Jacksonville, Florida, on June 15, 1946 using Grumman F6F-5 Hellcats.

The team was introduced as the “Blue Angels” at a show in Omaha, Nebraska, in July 1946 and the name stuck.

During the show this weekend, pilots such as Hempler will demonstrate why the team has become a representation of the skills and opportunities offered by the Navy. After thousands of hours of flying and dozens of air shows, Hempler said being a Blue Angel pilot never gets old.

“Sometimes I take step back, look at all the fun I get to have and the great privilege I have to represent the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps,” Hempler said. “Do I get used to it? Certainly we practice a lot and you can get used to the routine, but I say I have one of the best jobs in the world.”

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