The Blue Angels dazzled thousands of fans Friday at Naval Air Station Pensacola as they kicked off a jam-packed weekend of stunts, maneuvers and high-flying fun.
Cloudy skies and cold weather may have kept some fans away Friday — the temperature topped out at 62 degrees with wind gusts of up to 20 miles per hour, according to the National Weather Service.
The Blue Angels flew a low-altitude show due to the cloud cover.
Patrick Nichols, public affairs officer for NAS Pensacola, said between 25,000 and 30,000 people were expected to attend Friday’s show. Up to double that number are expected Saturday, when forecasters say the weather will be sunny with a high of 72.
“I think those people that aren’t coming (Friday) are going to be here (Saturday),” Nichols said.
Chilly weather? No problem
Still, those who attended Friday’s show made do with the colder weather. Many people could be seen bundled up underneath blankets, wearing knit hats and gloves.
Army veteran Shaw Bryson, who was seeing the show for the first time with his wife, Michelle, said the key to keeping warm was layers.
His wife had another strategy. She cuddled up behind her husband to block her body from the wind. The pair just moved to Pensacola from South Florida and said they actually enjoyed the colder weather and wouldn’t let it stop them from seeing the show.
“The military is the reason I’m able to sleep soundly at night,” Shaw Bryson said. “And the Blue Angels, oh man. It takes talent and precision to do that for sure. There’s a reason there’s only six or seven of them and 300 million people in the country.”
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The chill also didn’t deter self-professed Blue Angels mega-fans like Jeremy Andrews, who arrived just before 9:30 a.m. and parked his wheelchair right in front of the barrier about 100 yards from where the six F/A-18s sat on the airstrip.
Andrews has traveled to Pensacola from Great Plains, Missouri, every year for the Homecoming Air Show since 2014.
“I just love to watch them do everything they do, and to see them again this year is just great,” he said, donning a bright yellow Blue Angels cap and a gray souvenir shirt.
After the storm, a reason to smile
Also braving the cold were Leane Comerford, her husband Gainer, their 3-year-old grandson Sawyer Powell and their dog Buddy. The family sat in foldout chairs eating a bloomin’ onion as pilot Gary Ward flew his green MX 2 in loops through the sky.
Sawyer wore red headphones and pointed excitedly to the sky as the plane stalled out mid-air before nosediving back to the ground.
“It’s his first air show,” his grandmother said.
Sawyer lives in Dothan, Alabama, but his grandparents live in Cottondale, Florida. The town in Jackson County was among several in the eastern Panhandle that were devastated by Hurricane Michael nearly a month ago.
The Comerfords, who lost the roof of their home and were without power for two weeks, said they worked all day Thursday to secure the tarp on their roof before getting in their RV and coming to the air show Friday.
The Blue Angels, they said, were a reason to smile after everything they had gone through with the hurricane.
“It’s really nice to get away from it all and spend time with our grandson and the Blue Angels,” Gainer Comerford said. “We’re happy to be here.”
The next generation
Thousands of kids attended the show Friday, but only some donned replica Blue Angels uniforms and declared their intentions to fly with the world famous pilots some day.
Five-year-old Ansley Devries, who lives in Gulf Breeze, hopes to be the second female Blue Angels pilot. The first was U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Katie Higgins, who joined the team in 2014 and flew Fat Albert.
Donning a Blue Angels uniform, Ansley stood hand in hand with her older sister Ashlyn as an F-22 Raptor roared overhead. While everyone around her winced and plugged their ears, Ansley looked up in the sky and smiled.
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“She’s always been fascinated by the Blue Angels,” said her grandmother, Jeanette Devries. “She wants to be a Blue Angels pilot.”
Ansley said she wanted to fly with the Blues ever since seeing Higgins fly Fat Albert — the team’s C-130 transport plane — in a show two years ago.
She said the Blue Angels are “really cool” and that she’s not scared of flying.
“I like the color blue,” she added.
Cousins T.J. Miller and Charles Edgar V, both 2, were busy on a blanket having their own Blue Angels show with a bucket full of replica airplane toys.
Both from military families — Charles’ great-grandfather, Jerry Smith, has a building named after him at NAS Pensacola, and T.J.’s dad works on the base for the Department of Defense — the boys have been “obsessed” with the Blues since they were born, their moms said.
“He’s been playing with planes the entire time we’ve been here,” said Heather Edgar, Charles’ mom.
T.J., wearing a replica Blue Angels flight suit that was rolled up at the sleeves and pant legs — “It’s the smallest size they made,” said his mom, Olivia Miller — eventually grew tired of his replica planes and grabbed hold of a chicken nugget instead.
“We love coming here and seeing their excitement when they see the planes,” said T.J.’s grandmother, Christie Bell. “They say, ‘Plane! Plane!'”
Heather Edgar said the group has been to the show on Pensacola Beach, but this was their first show at the base. She said the two moms hope to instill in their kids the same love of the Blue Angels that they had growing up in Pensacola.
“It’s just something that, being from here, we’re proud of. We’re proud that they’re ours,” she said. “It’s something for us to have pride in and, of course, we want to raise them to love it just as much as we did.”
Veterans feel the patriotism
Rick Adams, who flew with the Blue Angels in 1968 and 1969, was in the crowd for Friday’s show and liked what he saw.
“They do a lot of maneuvers we could never do because of the aircraft,” he said.
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He was especially impressed when four of the jets crossed after coming from different directions.
“We would have been lucky if we were in the same county,” he said when the jets came together at center point.
Adams flew both the F-4 and F-11 with the team. He also did time as the No. 7 pilot flying celebrity guests. He recalled flying one actor whose toupee came off mid-flight.
“I was careful not to make people sick,” he said. “I’d watch them and I could tell if they were starting to get sick and I’d level out. It’s easy to make someone sick, but I didn’t want to do that.”
Also Friday, Bennie Caldwell, a Navy veteran, sat in a foldout chair with his 4-year-old granddaughter Baia snuggled under a blanket on his lap. The Caldwells were visiting Pensacola from Arkansas to see the show for the first time.
Billy Caldwell, Bennie’s son and Baia’s dad, wanted to come to Pensacola to see the Blue Angels for his birthday.
“I just wanted to come experience this,” he said. “And my dad is a Navy veteran so that’s special. It’s been great.”
Sam Jones, a retired Marine, sat with a heavy blanket and a Marine Corps hat as Fat Albert taxied to the runway.
The Pensacola resident said it was his fourth show, and he loved the atmosphere of each event.
“The patriotism, you can see it,” he said. “You can feel it. It just amazes me.”