Halfway through their winter training in El Centro, California, the U.S. Navy Blue Angels are getting ready to begin their 2017 airshow season March 11 with their annual start-of-season performance at Naval Air Facility El Centro.
After nearly two months of intense training, the pilots and support crew are starting to work together as a cohesive team, said Navy Lt. Joe Hontz, the Blue Angels public information officer.
“It’s all about repetition with this team,” he said, in answers to emailed questions from the Pensacola News Journal about the winter training experience.
“From the maintainers on the ground, to the support officers at (the ground communications cart), to the pilots in the air, they are succeeding because they are gaining the confidence to their jobs and trust others to do theirs,” he said.
The Blue Angels arrived in El Centro Jan. 5 following a brief holiday break after the 2016 end-of-season show Nov. 11 at Pensacola Naval Air Station.
This year marks the 50th year the Pensacola Naval Air Station-based team has conducted winter training at El Centro in Southern California.
“The people here have truly made it our home while we are away from our friends and family in Pensacola,” Hontz said.
Now that the training has reached the halfway point, the six F/A-18 pilots have transitioned from flying on their own to performing maneuvers from the team’s iconic delta formation.
“The diamond and solo pilots were flying independently to hone their skills with each maneuver. It wasn’t until right before the halfway point that we began flying with all six jets at the same time, forming the delta,” Hontz said. “The diamond and solo pilots will continue to fly independently, but the practices will become more geared toward the delta as we get closer to our first show.”
The 2017 shows will include a couple of changes.
The team will no longer regularly perform the tuck-under-break maneuver in which the four delta pilots do a high-speed break followed by a synchronized roll, Hontz said. The team will be performing the 270 afterburner, a roll with the afterburners on during three-fourths of the rotation, during most of the shows. In the past, the team has only preformed the 270 afterburner during low-altitude shows when cloud cover prevented some other maneuvers.
“This was done to make a more efficient use of the aircraft and conserve fuel,” Hontz said. “The burner 270 offers all of those and gives the fans a maneuver that is closer to them and is pretty darn cool. It is intended to demonstrate the awesome power of our engines by having all four aircraft in formation with afterburners selected,” he said.
Blue Angel pilots are experienced Navy and Marine pilots who are selected to serve a two-year rotation with the elite demonstration team before returning to the fleet. Unlike other fighter jet pilots, the Blue Angels fly without G-suits used to keep blood in the upper body and prevent them from passing out during high-G maneuvers.
The Blue Angels use abdominal exercises and breathing techniques to fight the G forces. The team has a special waiver from the military to fly without the G-suits because inflatable bladders in the legs of the suits can bump the flight stick, making it impossible to perform tight formations. The six F/A jets typically fly in formation with their wingtips just inches apart.
The Blue Angel pilots also fly with a 40-pound spring attached to the flight stick to allow for more-precise control of the jets. During the winter training, new team members get used to flying without the G-suits and to flying with the spring attached to the flight stick.
The intensive winter training is crucial to the team’s success, Hontz said.
“We practice two to three times a day, six days a week.”
Maintenance crew members start each day before sunrise getting the jets ready for the first flight of the day. Work for the entire team continues throughout the day as the pilots do multiple flights.
Hontz said the days end with time in the gym.
“The work is extremely hard, but the end result is an incredible performance that represents the Navy and Marine Corps as a whole,” he said.
The Blue Angels are scheduled to return to Pensacola on March 20.
The team is scheduled to begin regular practice shows at the National Naval Aviation Museum on March 28. Many of the popular practice sessions are followed by autograph signings inside the museum.
Hontz said the team is looking forward to returning to Pensacola.
“We are honored to be part of such a proud tradition that allows us to be part of such a strong community back in Pensacola. Be sure to look out for us on March 20 as we fly back home to Pensacola,” he said.