While the Blue Angels streak through the skies above the National Naval Aviation Museum on Wednesday afternoons, a group of devoted volunteers is busy preparing for another show inside the museum.
The volunteers, most in their 70s and 80s, organize the weekly pilot autograph sessions that follow the elite fighter jet demonstration team’s practices.
“They make it easier for us all around. Their work behind the scenes helps us promote naval aviation,” Lt. Joe Hontz, the Blue Angels spokesman, said Wednesday as he watched the six pilots greet hundreds of fans gathered inside the museum’s atrium. The pilots signed T-shirts, baseball caps, flags and many other items while posing for photographs and answering questions from fans.
Around the museum, the eight autograph volunteers are affectionately known as “Dave and the ladies.” Dave is David Lorenzo, a 74-year-old former Marine fighter pilot who flew in Vietnam and then had a career as a pilot for Delta airlines. The ladies come from various backgrounds — nursing, retired military, business — and they all share a love for naval aviation and the Blue Angels.
Jane Head, 82, has volunteered at the museum since 2001. She drove a golf cart, shuttling museum visitors around the property, before becoming an autograph volunteer six years ago. Betty Wall, 78, joined the group around the same time.
Both women are big fans of the Blue Angels.
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“We don’t know them on a personal basis, but we enjoy spending time with them,” Head said. “They are such gentlemen.”
“And they are all so good looking,” she said, laughing.
The autograph volunteers show up early, hours before the Blue Angels start flying. They carry boxes of folded brochures with photographs and information about the 2017 Blue Angels to the museum atrium, where workers have already set up a row of tables and chairs for the pilots and roped off lines for the fans to wait for autographs. The volunteers make sure the pilots have plenty of brochures on hand to sign. They also chat with museum visitors and answer questions before the pilots show up.
Through the years, Wall has watched the pilots sign some interesting things.
“The rule is that they will sign anything but skin or money,” she said.
A man once brought a large surfboard for the pilots to sign.
“Lately, everyone wants their photos with the pilots. They are always asking them to pose for a picture,” she said.
Through the course of the season, the volunteers get to know the pilots and support staff. When Marine Capt. Jeff Kuss died in a Tennessee air show crash in June, the volunteers were devastated. Ten months after his death, the women’s eyes fill with tears when they talk about the loss.
“It broke our hearts,” Head said.
The Blue Angels didn’t fly for a month, and the autograph sessions stopped.
“When the team came back, they had replaced him. A lot of the people at autograph sessions didn’t know what had happened because they were from out of town. It was tough,” she said.
Lorenzo, the former Marine fighter pilot, said he always tries to give fans a realistic look at the difficulties of the Blue Angels’ flying. The former F-8 Crusader pilot said what the Blue Angels do is much like what other Navy and Marine aviators do.
“It is all about the stick and rudder work,” he said.
But, he said, flying in formations that are sometimes just inches from the next plane’s wingtips requires an extra level of confidence and skill.
“When you think about the close passes they do, you have to have a lot of confidence in your teammate,” said Lorenzo, who sometimes narrates the Blue Angels practice flights for fans outside on the museum’s flight line.
For fellow autograph volunteer Phyllis Crooke, 77, the experience is all about interacting with the fans, especially the young children.
Crooke has chatted with visitors from around the world at the autograph sessions.
“China, England, the Aussies,” she said. “For me, it is all about the people.”
Bobbie Fallen, 82, spent a lot of time with the Blue Angels in the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s when her late husband was a liaison to the team from McDonald Douglass Corp. McDonald Douglass produced the F-18 Hornet, which the team still flies today. Fallen wears a pin that the Blue Angels gave her husband on her volunteer jacket.
“We went to many, many shows during those years, and we really got to know the team,” said Fallen, who decided to volunteer at the museum after she retired from the Greater Pensacola Chamber of Commerce several years ago.
On Wednesday, she stood in the middle of a long lines of fans, handed out brochures and answered their questions.
Brayden Wright, who was celebrating his fifth birthday, was among those waiting for autographs. Wright wore a small Blue Angels flight suit and hoped to get his photo with Blue Angels Cmdr. Ryan Bernacchi to mark his birthday.
Ryleigh Franklin, 7, was also in the crowd. Franklin carried a bag with the words “Future Blue Angel” written on the back, and she wanted the pilots to sign the bag.
“The kids are my favorite part,” Fallen said as she commented on the many children dressed in the Blue Angel T-shirts, hats and other gear.
Museum Director Sterling Gilliam was also in the crowd of several thousand.
The autograph volunteers are part of a group of more than 360 people who volunteer in different locations around the museum complex, he said.
“The value they bring to the museum is incalculable,” he said. “They really are what makes this museum.”
Gilliam said he especially enjoys seeing the young sailors and Marines who are starting their military careers interacting with the older volunteers. Students who are awaiting pilot training often volunteer at the museum.
“I love it because people can come to the museum and see how it spans the generations. You can come to the museum and have a fresh-faced kid right of college greeting you at the door and then you might meet an experienced aviator who has had a long career,” he said.
Without the volunteers, the popular Blue Angels practice shows and autograph sessions wouldn’t happen, he said.