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Watching over an angel: Mayer man cares for Navy flight team aircraft and its pilot

PENSACOLA, Florida – The big attraction at airshows where they appear is
the U.S. Navy flight demonstration team, the Blue Angels. The six
pilots fly their F/A-18s in a highly choreographed series of
breathtaking moves, and the crowds love what they see.

But those aircraft are going nowhere without men like AD1 Justin Hanks. He’s the Crew Chief for Blue Angel 6, flown by Capt. Jeff Kuss, USMC.

“(Crew Chiefs) take care of the pilot and the aircraft that pilot will be flying,” he said.

Hanks, 25, is from Mayer. He joined the Navy in 2007, right out of high school.

“I knew the military was for me,” he said. “I didn’t really know what I was going to be able to do.”

But like so many other recruits, the Navy knew what it would do with him. He became a helicopter mechanic, and did that for four years. He deployed to South Africa twice, and then became an instructor, teaching new sailors just out of boot camp the basics of jet engine maintenance.

“I still really didn’t know a whole lot about the Blue Angels until I came out to Pensacola to be an instructor,” Hanks said. “One of my mentors was a Blue Angel” several years earlier, and convinced him to become involved.

Now 18 months into a three-year tour, he’s toured the U.S., and he said a highlight was working the Super Bowl flyover in San Francisco this year.

“I’ve been at right around 22 different shows.”

His job typically means flying to a show location in a few hours ahead of the pilots, arriving on the C-130 nicknamed “Fat Albert” that carries all the support staff and their equipment.

“We make sure the show site is set up for our needs,” and then, when the jets land, prep them for their next flight.

It’s a prestigious job, both inside and outside the Navy.

His favorite part of the job is meeting the public at airshows and going to schools to promote the Blue Angels and the Navy. And it isn’t just the pilots who are celebrities.

“I get people asking for my picture and asking for my autograph all the time,” he said. “It’s a very humbling experience. There’s absolutely no difference between me or any other jet or helicopter mechanic that’s out in the fleet.”

He’s an ambassador for the U.S. Navy, and loves to meet new people.

He enjoys “talking with every person (he) possibly can” at public appearances.

The Blue Angels celebrate their 70th anniversary this year. Since 1946, the Blue Angels have performed for more than 484 million fans.