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Former US Navy Blue Angels pilot shares story

U S Navy Blue Angels inspire and entertain as they perform for Fleet Week in San Francisco.

The Bay Area’s Fleet Week, an annual celebration of ships in the sea and air, will attract over a million people to the waterfront through October 10. The free Air Show over SF’s Marina Green will display the razor-sharp skills of pilots who test the limits of aerial acrobatics.

This year’s appearances will include Canada’s Snowbirds, Breitling Jet Team, Navy Leap Frogs, Patriots Jets, Coast Guard helicopter rescues, daredevil stunts of the Lucas Oil and Oracle bi-planes, and more.

For many, the highlight is watching the breathtaking maneuvers of the United States Navy Blue Angels Squadron as they scream across our bay and bridges on Oct. 7, 8 and 9.

I caught up with Matt Shortal, a former Blue Angel pilot who spoke at a guest appearance sponsored by his friend Tim Russell and the Valley Oak Wealth Management firm in Novato.

We watched clips from inside the cockpit of a Blue Angel F/A-18 jet as it smoked across the skies at 400 miles per hour, often upside down. Shortal, a “Top Gun” graduate and US Navy fighter weapons school graduate, answered questions about his stint as a pilot from 2004-2008.

Marinscope: What’s with that tune the pilot was singing as he flew?

That’s our way of counting, keeping together. We’re making sure we all start a turn at precisely the same moment. We listen for the lead’s voice and know from the code words and tune what’s next.

Marinscope: How do you get chosen to be in the Blue Angels?

You’re recommended by your superiors who recognize that you have the training, flight time, and abilities to get along with others. There’s always a huge pool of applicants. From hundreds of names in the hat, a few dozen are chosen. These pilots are interviewed and it’s not unlike pledge week. Personalities are important, as the six pilots have to be solidly with one another.

Marinscope: How long do you serve?

The tour as a Blue Angel pilot is six years. The first two years you are being trained for a particular spot in the flying formation, learning from your assigned pilot. Then you’d perform for four years, with the last two years training a new pilot to be your replacement. We perform for a season that runs from April to October and practice the remaining months.

Marinscope: When you are one of the six pilots with your name on the jets, do you have a personalized crew?

Yes, a pilot has an individually assigned ground crew of 20. Our crew teams make sure our planes are 100% perfect, checked and double-checked.

Marinscope: Are there any backup pilots should one of you not be able to fly in a scheduled show?

No. We might fill in the spot in a flying formation, and fly as five instead of six, but we have no backups.

Marinscope: How many G’s do you experience in these jets?

First I should explain that a gravitational force where you sit now is a positive 1. If you were on a roller coaster, and it crests at the top and starts down, that feeling of the bottom dropping out is a negative 1. It’s uncomfortable. When the coaster hits the bottom of the slope and pushes you into your seat as the car rushes up, that’s likely 2 Gs. When we fly our jets, we experience forces that range from a negative 3 Gs to positive 8 Gs. The skin on our faces pulls back from our bones.

Marinscope: Do pilots ever get airsick in the cockpit?

If a pilot makes it as far as the Blue Angels, you’ve become accustomed to the task, so it rarely happens. Some pilots prefer to eat nothing before flights, some eat pretty much anything. The truth is, if you’re going to get sick, it doesn’t matter what you eat. Yes, we have airsickness bags in the cockpit.

Marinscope: How close are the jets when you are flying 400 miles per hour?

When we start out, we are as far away from one another as an arm’s length. When we are doing our maneuvers, we can be as close as 18 inches from the next plane.

Marinscope: Do you use autopilot or electronic guidance for your maneuvers?

We use the old-fashioned stick and rudder and use visual spots to check our positions. We look out the canopy (window) to read the markings on the other jets flying beside us. We also use a ground marker, which in SF is our white barge in the bay, to judge our location.

Marinscope: Even flying upside down?

Yes, even upside down. That takes some getting used to!

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