The Blue Angels – Thunder over Pensacola Bay

Introduction

Note: Blue Angels – Thunder over the Bay is a continuation of events during our recent trip to Fort Pickens and Pensacola, Florida.

The Fort Pickens campground offered a distinct advantage for me. The departure route for training flights from Naval Air Station Pensacola went right over the campground. Also, the Blue Angels typically practice two days each week, usually on Tuesday and Wednesday. Our campground was directly across the bay from Pensacola and we saw bits and pieces of their performance each day from our campground. Hanging out at Fort Pickens offered a good view of the whole practice—only the very low passes over the runway were obscured by trees.
Blue Angels-00

I was not involved in scheduling the camping trip, but our trip coincided with what the Blue Angles called their “home coming” show. The Blue Angels are based and NAS Pensacola and this was to be the last performance of the 2014 season. This was also the 100th Anniversary of NAS Pensacola.

Now, I am ex-Air Force, and like living in Tennessee, it is hard to cheer for Alabama. For me, the Thunderbirds are the “home team,” but the Blue Angels do put on a good show! The score would be very close!

The Blue Angels are the Navy's precision demonstration team. They perform before an estimated 11 million people every year.

The Blue Angels are the Navy’s precision demonstration team. They perform before an estimated 11 million people every year.

I look at the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds from a military pilot’s point of view. What does that mean? I enjoy seeing, but am not awed by, the formations and individual elements of the performance, but by the overall consistent precision they demonstrate.

Both the Navy Blue Angels and Air Force Thunderbirds point out that the maneuvers flown by their demonstration teams are based on the same maneuvers flown by all pilots who complete flight training. Also, most of the demonstrated maneuvers are based on elements used by fighter pilots in combat. Of course, most Air Force and Navy pilots do not fly these maneuvers so close to each other or the ground.

Formation flight, a major part of these demonstrations, was developed early in the history of air-to-air combat for mutual protection. In air-to-air combat, one aircraft presses the attack against an enemy aircraft and the wingman provides “cover” to protect him from other enemy fighters.

Consequently, when two or more aircraft head into combat, they fly together, in formation. Formations can be flown in “close” formation, as perfected by the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds or “route” formation. Route formation uses the same elements as “close” formations, but aircraft fly wider apart so that wingmen are not required to concentrate solely on the formation. This allows all pilots to look around and be vigilant for enemy aircraft.

Close formation is where the aircraft are flown in a very tight formation—usually only inches apart. In close formation, the lead pilot essentially “flies” the entire formation of aircraft. Wingmen “simply” hold a position close to the lead and follow the lead aircraft. In this case, all aircraft do exactly what lead does—and their only reference is to hold their position in relationship to the lead aircraft. The formation pilots put their absolute trust in their lead—they cannot take the time to look at anything else.

Likewise, the lead pilot has to think for and be aware of the challenges each of his wingmen may face. For example, in an echelon formation, the number four aircraft is at a slight disadvantage in turns. He has to fly a little faster to hold position. Consequently, lead must manage his speed to allow all members of the formation to be able to hold position.

In flight training we flew two-ship (first) then four ship formations. Holding position usually involved finding two points on the lead aircraft, that when aligned, established the proper position, usually slightly behind and below the lead aircraft. For example, the proper position in the T-38 was when, from the pilot’s point of view, the wingtip of the lead aircraft was visually aligned with the center of star on the side of his aircraft.

In reality, formation flight is a constant set of minute corrections to maintain the proper position. Demonstration pilots, who are already fully qualified and experienced pilots, must complete an additional 120 training flights before being able to perform with the demonstration team. This ensures that all demonstration pilots maintain the same high levels of consistent precision throughout the demonstration season. The Blue Angels also fly two full-program practice sessions each week during the demonstration season to maintain the precision teamwork needed to fly the tight formations safely.

BASIC FORMATIONS

Four-Ship Diamond Formation

The basic diamond formation

The basic diamond formation

This is the basic four-ship demonstration formation. The numbering convention is: lead is No. 1, right wingman is No. 2, the left wingman is No. 3, and the slot is No 4. All aircraft are flying with reference to the lead aircraft. Note that the lead aircraft is slightly above the wingmen, and the slot is slightly below the front three.

V-formation

A three-ship V-formation

A three-ship V-formation

The V-formation can be a three (or more)-ship formation, with the lead out front and right and left wingmen. In a four-ship V-formation, the number 4 aircraft will fly off of the left or right wingman, depending on formation requirements.
During the airshow we witnessed, the above formation was supposed to be a four diamond. The four aircraft take off in a V-formation. Immediately after takeoff, they transition to the diamond. On this day, as they were forming into the diamond, the No. 3 aircraft pulled out of the formation—apparently due to some problem with the aircraft. The show continued uninterrupted with No. 4 flying the left wing until mid-way through the show. Whatever the problem was, the pilot landed, the aircraft was fixed, and No. 3 rejoined the demonstration in time to complete the six-ship formations.
Very few spectators even noticed, and the show announcer made no mention of No. 3’s absence. What was supposed to be a four-ship diamond formation flyover became, according to the Blue Angels own announcer, a “three-ship diamond.” The Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds demonstrations (that I have seen) do not routinely include three-ship elements in their shows.

Echelon Formation

A three-ship echelon formation

A three-ship echelon formation

An echelon formation has aircraft staggered to one side of the lead aircraft, arranged in 1-2-3-4 order. The photograph reflects the fact that the No. 3 aircraft had not yet rejoined the demonstration at the time the echelon formation was being flown.
Six-Ship Flying Delta

The six-ship flying delta formation

The six-ship flying delta formation

This six-ship formation is formed from the basic diamond formation, with the two solo aircraft tucked in on the wings of No. 2 and 3. By this time in the performance, No. 3 had rejoined the demonstration.

Blue Angels Solos

The Blue Angels demonstration includes two solo aircraft the “solo” and the “opposing solo.” Most, but not all of their maneuvers are learned by line pilots. (We never practiced flying inverted with the gear extended!) The basic role of the solo aircraft is to demonstrate the capabilities of the Boeing F/A-18 Hornet aircraft. This includes demonstrations of flight at minimum air speeds, high angles of attack, landing configuration, etc. They also provide high speed head-to-head rolling and inverted maneuvers as the four-ship positions itself for their next maneuver.

Inverted fly-by performed by one of the solo aircraft

Inverted fly-by performed by one of the solo aircraft

One of the most impressive solo aircraft maneuvers is a two-ship fly-by where one aircraft is inverted and perfectly aligned with the other aircraft, and both have their landing gear and tail hooks extended. From the flight line, it looks like some strange aircraft with wheels on both top and bottom.

The two solo aircraft, one inverted, both with landing gear and tail hook extended.

The two solo aircraft, one inverted, both with landing gear and tail hook extended.

The two solo aircraft, one inverted, both with landing gear and tail hook extended.
The solos join the other four for several six-ship formations.

Speeds

According to Blue Angels promotional information, the fastest speed used in the demonstration is 700 mph or just under the speed of sound during the “sneak pass” (they use miles per hour rather than knots in public information announcements). The slowest speed is about 120 mph flown at a high angle-of-attack. Both these demonstrations are flown by the solo pilots. The “sneak pass” occurs while everyone is looking out across the runway waiting for the next event. One of the solos flies in from behind the crowd, very low, at near the speed of sound, and with lots of power. Because of the speed, the plane crosses the crowd only slightly behind its sound. It usually catches most of the crowd by surprise.

The two solos demonstrated high angle-of-attack slow speed flight

The two solos demonstrated high angle-of-attack slow speed flight


One element of the airshow that is impossible to convey here is the noise. The sounds of these jets as the fly their maneuvers is every bit as important as the visual as the visual sensations of the show. Four F/A-18s crossing over the crowd with engines in afterburner creates a tangible sensation. Conversation ceases. People just watch.
Join-Ups

One of the most demanding maneuvers demonstrated, but hardly noticed, occurs when aircraft that have separated, as in a bomb-burst maneuver, reassemble into their formation. To rejoin a formation smoothly, quickly and safely requires very precise timing and control by the pilot joining the formation. He must fly faster than the lead to catch up, but slow down smoothly to slide into position. It is a maneuver that takes as much practice and precision as the more impressive aerobatics and formations demonstrated.
Fat Albert

The Lockheed C-130 Hercules, dubbed “Fat Albert,” transport all support equipment and ground crews to airshows throughout the year. It demonstrated its short field take-off and landing capability. This capability is useful for C-130 transport aircraft when delivering critical supplies into combat areas. The aircraft can stay high, away from enemy ground fire, then descend steeply and stop in a short distance once over the airport.
Operational Status

There are seven Blue Angel F/A-18s. No. 7 is a two-seat version of the jet. It is used for media and special guest flights. Blue Angels and Thunderbird aircraft are operationally capable aircraft. For demonstration purposes, the only changes to the aircraft involve removing the gun from the nose, installing a smoke oil tank and a special spring that helps pilots maintain the proper tension on the control stick. Should national defense require these aircraft, they would be repainted and fully outfitted for combat service in 72 hours. Blue Angel and Thunderbird pilots would be absorbed into operational squadrons.

About Entry
Blue Angels – Thunder over the Bay is a continuation of events during our recent trip to Fort Pickens and Pensacola, Florida. How fast do the Blue Angels fly during their demonstrations? Our trip to Pensacola coincided with the Blue Angels’ final demonstration flights of 2014. Blue Angels – Thunder over the Bay describes their performance from a former military pilot’s point of view, including their fastest and slowest speeds during the show.

Contents Entry
Blue Angels – Thunder over the Bay Describes a recent Blue Angels demonstration and explains some of the elements of the demonstration from a former military pilot’s point of view.

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One Response to The Blue Angels – Thunder over Pensacola Bay

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