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Blue Angels pilots discuss March air show

NAVAL AIR WEAPONS STATION CHINA LAKE – With the Navy’s Blue Angels set to grace the skies over Indian Wells Valley in a little over two months, an advance team came in ahead of the team Monday for a site visit and to speak with community members and media.

Lt. Dave Steppe, events coordinator, and Lt. Brandon Hempler, the Blue Angels’ narrator, took time to answer questions and give a synopsis of the upcoming show, the first of its kind for China Lake since 1992.

“We are extremely proud to come out to China Lake,” Steppe said. “It’s an amazing area down here in Southern and Central California.”

Steppe noted the airfield at China Lake will be conducive to the March 18-19 show.

The Blue Angels are made up of Navy and Marine Corps pilots.

The squadron’s mission “is to showcase the pride and professionalism of the United States Navy and Marine Corps by inspiring a culture of excellence and service to country through flight demonstrations and community outreach.”

Steppe noted it will be great to start its season. The first show of the season will be at Naval Air Facility El Centro’s annual air show on March 11. China Lake will be its next stop.

“This will be our first show on the road,” Steppe said.

Hempler noted that the show will feature the Blue Angels signature style of flying tight formation in F/A-18 fighters. However, the air show remains only one element of Blue Angels visit in March.

“Our mission is to come out here to not only show our pride, fresh look and professionalism of the U.S. Navy throughout flight demonstration but also inspire the community, especially the youth toward a culture of excellence,” Hempler said.

The Blue Angels were first established in 1946 as a vision by then-Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Chester Nimitz to create a flight exhibition team. The Blue Angels team of that era flew maneuvers in F6 Hellcat, F8 Bearcat and F9 Panther. In the 1950s it was the F9 Cougar and F-11 Tiger; the 1960s saw performances in the F-4 Phantom, and by 1974 made the move to the A-4 Skyhawk. In 1986, the Blue Angels unveiled the F/A-18 Hornet, which they use to this day.

The Blue Angels include a team of 17 officers in flight and support roles and 100 enlisted Sailors and Marines who act as the support crew. Crews of 45 members alternate between each show site.

Members of the Blue Angels are considered ambassadors of goodwill for the Navy.

Hempler and Steppe noted they were both blessed to fly with the Blue Angels.

“There are a lot of Sailors, Marines and pilots who would love to be part of the team, and we get the unique privilege of being part of that,” Hempler said. “It’s a lot like applying for a job: you have to have a lot of references, a good name in the fleet and all that comes with a great responsibility when you join the team.”

Hempler added, “it’s been a dream of both ours to fly for the Navy since we were little.”

Steppe added it’s a “humbling experience” to fly with the Blue Angels.

Both are still in their first year serving on the Blue Angels team, but Hempler noted the flight team strives for excellence, watching videos to continually get better.

Steppe described flying in an F/A-18 much like a roller coaster.

“The way the jets perform, it’s an awesome experience,” Steppe said.

Hempler agreed, adding, “I usually can’t wait to get up the ladder and strapped in. It’s like a sports car times a hundred. It’s a fun airplane to fly.”

Hempler said one of the signature performances, the Diamond Formation executed by Pilots 1-4, fly at a wing tip to canopy separation of 18 inches.

All maneuvers demonstrate what the Navy and Marine aircraft are capable of doing, Hempler added.

“The public loves the roar of fighter jets and knows what they are capable of doing and that they are out there doing our work for our country,” Hempler said.

Many shows draw about 50,000 to 100,000 people. Around 60,000 people are expected for the China Lake show.

Steppe said coordination of the event began in December.

“By the time March rolls around, we have all the logistics set,” Steppe said.

Capt. Paul Dale, commanding officer of Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, described the anticipation for the air show as exciting.

“To have a demonstration team here of their caliber and the other acts along side that [is exciting],”

Dale said. “One of the points to emphasize is that the theme of this air show is celebrating nearly three-quarters of a century of research, development, acquisition, test and evaluation. We get to demonstrate what the Blue Angels do, but also the excellence that is produced on this base in terms of providing for the national security of this nation.”

Those will come in the form of static displays and tours, as well as different booths related to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

“That you have 6,000 people working on this base with a common goal of working for providing for national security is absolutely phenomenal,” Dale said.

Dale said that he’s seen the Blue Angels perform while at different duty stations, but recalled when he was a child attending a show in St. Cloud, Minn.

“We went an alternate route with some family members and came in through the woods outside the field … there was a portion of the show where a jet flew over us at very low altitude and we had no idea it was coming at us,” Dale said. “To this day I will remember the noise and vibration of the jet flying right over us.”

Dale also stressed his role as commanding officer is to ensure the base puts on a safe and secure air show. Procedures will be in place to make sure that occurs, including restrictions on what people can bring on the base, vehicles and locations that will be labeled off limits.

The show is March 18-19. The preliminary schedule shows the gates opening at 9 a.m., flying begins at noon and ends at 4:30 p.m. and the gates close at 5 p.m. In addition to the Blue Angels, other performances include Spencer Suderman Pitts in his S-2B, Jacquie B in her Extra 300 monoplane, Dan Buchanan in his hang glider and Anna Serbinenko.

General admission and parking are free, but premium and VIP seats are also available on the flight line for $25 per adults and children 4-12 (children 3 years old and younger sitting on laps do not require a ticket). Seats from the Flight Line Club are considered the best in the house but come at a premium cost of $125 for adults and $75 for children ages 4-12.

For more information and updates, visit chinalakeairshow.com.