Humility. Ownership. Standing before a crowd of 200-plus inside MTSU’s Business and Aerospace Building Friday morning, U.S. Navy Blue Angels slot pilot and U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Jeff Mullins kept emphasizing the importance of those words in the culture of the flight demonstration team.
“Humility and ownership of your own mistakes,” said Mullins, who was joined by Navy mechanic Orlando Navedo and public affairs supervisor Ian Cotter for Friday’s public presentation in advance of the Blue Angels performance in the Great Tennessee Air Show on Saturday and Sunday in Smyrna.
“What I mean by humility is, when you fly planes … it’s not a very forgiving business,” the Memphis native continued. All Blue Angels flights are filmed, he said, and pilots will indicate, in flight before thousands of onlookers and colleagues, when they have made a mistake or are out of position by turning off the jet’s smoke trail.
“It’s the humility to own your mistakes on camera … and admitting when you’re out of position so that we can figure out how to get better,” he added. “Without that humility, without that desire to learn and get better, we wouldn’t improve as an organization and we wouldn’t be as good as we are.”
Wearing that trademark blue flight suit with gold embossing, the pilot of the No. 4 jet shared details about the Blue Angels culture of teamwork and answered questions from the audience about the F/A-18 Hornet aircraft they fly and the team’s support operations.
The audience — MTSU aerospace students, as well as area high school students, cadets from Civil Air Patrol, the volunteer civilian auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force, local scouts and members of the general public — listened intently as Mullins and Navedo discussed “what teamwork, hard work and dedication can build,” including doing maneuvers that sometimes put the jets about 18 inches apart.
“The amount of trust that we put into each person on the team, to meet the mission, it’s incredible,” said Navedo, one of the 40 to 50 Blue Angels handpicked team members that travel each week for the aerial shows. “Looking back, that’s a big part of the reason I wanted to be here. The camaraderie and family that we build while we’re here is unlike any other place.”
MTSU junior pro-pilot major Riley Marshall, a transfer student from Roanoke, Virginia, was thrilled to be able to hear from a Blue Angels pilot in person — with the personal handshake and smartphone photo with Mullins at the end an added bonus.
“I just think it’s a great opportunity, something you don’t get to see a lot, so definitely take advantage of it,” said Marshall, who’s had a love of aviation from a young age. Marshall plans to apply to an Air National Guard unit after graduation and eventually work his way into officer training school and “get my foot in the door anyway I can.”
After just completing his first semester in MTSU ‘s highly regarded aerospace program and taking summer courses as well, Marshall has been pleased. “Everybody’s been super helpful. There’s definitely an environment where people want to help you and encourage you to go further. Everybody’s just really passionate about it,” he said.
With a plan to pursue military aviation, the Blue Angels presentation was a golden opportunity to learn about the mindset required to be a part of such an elite flight team and “what got them so far into their aviation career. It takes a lot of drive to be that skilled of a pilot.”
That’s the point, said MTSU Department of Aerospace Chair Wendy Beckman, who oversees a program of 875 aerospace students, with roughly 500 of those in the pro-pilot program and others spread among programs in maintenance management, flight dispatch and unmanned aerial systems.
“It’s very inspirational. Obviously, the Blue Angels have the name in aviation in terms of being … the pinnacle,” said Beckman, whose department has previously hosted such Blue Angels presentations whenever they perform at the Smyrna show. “So it’s very inspiring for students to hear about how they got to where they are.”
That includes prospective students like Murfreesboro’s Micaiah Williams, a 16-year-old veteran cadet with the Civil Air Patrol Tennessee Wing 162, who was among a small group of cadets attending the event.
“It’s an honor to have them out and talk, the many things they do, how they got there, the humility … It’s very electrifying to come out here and see them,” said Williams, who’s seen the Blue Angels before and plans to be on hand again this weekend for the Smyrna show.
Mullins, who spent two semesters at MTSU and was an ROTC student, said the purpose of the Blue Angels is to “inspire a culture of excellence and service to country through our flight demonstrations and community outreach.”
Toward the end of the Q&A session, Mullins was asked how this year’s Blue Angels would honor fallen pilot and Marine Capt. Jeff Kuss, who died in a crash during practice for the show on June 2, 2016.
Mullins knew Kuss personally and called him “one of the best Marines I’ve ever known.”
“Fly the safest and best show we can for him,” Mullins said. “But we also represent all the service men and women out there who work the fleet today.”