Reporter Larry Pynn got the chance to fly with the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels, who will be at the Abbotsford International Air Show this weekend
It’s 2 p.m., and Lt. Andre Webb of the elite U.S. Navy Blue Angels aerobatic team taxies his F/A-18 Hornet onto the searing-hot runway at Abbotsford International Airport.
“Once we get to our flyway speed, 130 knots or so, we’ll start climbing away,” he explains from the front seat of the cockpit. “We’ll level off at 100 feet, accelerate to 300 knots, I’ll give you a ‘Ready, hit it,’ then we’ll just climb away at 45 degrees, nose high.”
It all seems so matter-of-fact to Webb, who has flown 2,300 hours in military aircraft, about half those in the Hornet.
But when he gets to ‘Hit it,’ it seems as though I am being propelled straight to the moon. Then he does a roll and all I can do is smile broadly and think, “I might as well be in outer space.”
We fly at 340 knots to 11,500 feet and head for Mt. Baker in Washington state, flying close to the summit. “Pretty cool looking up there and seeing all the glaciers, sitting on top of the mountain,” Webb remarks.
Our flight does not mimic a Blue Angels performance. Webb urges me to imagine other Blue Angels flying just two feet off the wing tips.
But make no mistake, this is much more than a scenic flight.
“We’re going to start pulling a little G here,” Webb warns.
During a pre-flight briefing, crew chief Anthony Batronis talked about “beating the G-Monster.”
G forces can be so extreme that you can lose your cookies, your vision and ultimately your consciousness. Batronis showed me a breathing and muscle-tensing exercise designed to get the G-monster before it gets me.
A person standing on the ground experiences 1-G force, compared with about 3-Gs for astronauts during rocket launch.
“We’re going to turn right here, for 90 degrees or so,” Webb says. “First, we’re going to pull two, then three, then four Gs.”
Then he levels off and asks how I’m doing — okay — so he accelerates to 400 knots and warns me that he’s going to punch directly to four Gs and beyond. “Keep after it, okay?”
Batronis had described the more extreme G forces in the Hornet as akin to an elephant sitting on your chest. I bear down and grind it out.
“Here comes six (Gs). Okay, we’re rolling out of that.”
The G-monster hasn’t got me, yet. “You’re a rock star, man.”
Webb is among six Blue Angel pilots who will perform at the 56th Abbotsford International Airshow this weekend. Practice flights are on Friday, and full flight demonstrations are Saturday and Sunday. See abbotsfordairshow.com for details.
Webb grew up in Lawton, Oklahoma, and graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2008. He is based out of Pensacola, Florida. He wears a snug blue jumpsuit with the U.S. flag on his left shoulder, two yellow stripes across his left chest and the Blue Angels crest across his right.
“You see a lot of cool movies growing up … seeing Midway with my dad,” Webb reflects. “Any of the war movies involving flying — the romance of it, the mystique, that’ll get you interested.”
It is worth emphasizing that the Hornet is designed for combat, not media ride-alongs. And the Blue Angels are ambassadors for the U.S military, a means of recruitment, and, in Webb’s words, a way to “inspire a culture of excellence and service to country.”
The Hornet in which I am flying is not just off the showroom floor — it is about 30 years old.
Pilots serve two years with the Blue Angels, and errors can have fatal consequences.
In 2016, a Hornet flying too fast and too low crashed into a field while preparing for an air show in Tennessee, claiming the 27th Blue Angels pilot since 1946.
Should I be scared? There’s no point. Give yourself up to plane and pilot for 45 minutes, and enjoy the ride of your life.
Webb does a 360-degree loop, using smoke to trace a Ferris wheel in the sky. A magical feeling.
Next up is a minimum radius turn, 360 degrees and 6.5-plus Gs. It’s intensive, and exhausting.
“Boy, that was maxed out,” I report.
“A little workout, huh?” he responds.
Then it’s time to fly upside down. “We’ll just be hanging out.”
My helmet touches the canopy, and I laugh giddily at the whole experience.
There’s more. “I’m going to show you the Hornet’s ability to fly vertically. We’ll pull about 4.5 Gs and we’ll end up at about 13,000 feet or so.” More sheer exhilaration, but the cumulative impact of the stunts is wearing me down. I take some deep breaths and try to recoup.
Webb heads for Whidbey Island in Washington state, northward alongside the San Juan Islands.
He receives clearance to fly directly over Vancouver International Airport, then English Bay, Lions Gate Bridge, and straight down the middle of Burrard Inlet — as though we had the keys to the city.
I sense he just can’t resist showboating. We fly over Second Narrows Bridge — upside down. That’s an image I will never forget.
Then, just before Abbotsford airport, Webb pulls another trick out of his sleeve.
“Alright, sir, are you ready?”
“Ready,” I reply, not sure exactly what to expect.
He turns sharply to the left and ratchets up the Gs. My head slowly drops to my chest. For three seconds I am unconscious, but bounce back.
“7.1 Gs,” Webb reports. “You’re the winner today.”
By the time we land, I am reaching for the small barf bag by my right leg.
I go through the motions, but only a bit comes out. Still, I feel better.
Batronis told me that 45 minutes with a Blue Angel can feel like 2.5 hours in the gym. I don’t work out.
I walk down the thin ladder on the side of the jet exhausted. It’s been quite a day.
Sure, the G-Monster beat me, but it was one fight I wouldn’t have missed.