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What it’s like to fly with the Blue Angels

by Till Daisd
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Aircraft flown by the US Navy Blue Angels 1946 to 1996

The Blue Angels are a team of highly trained pilots who demonstrate the skills of the United States Navy. These pilots undergo a rigorous training program to learn how to fly in formation, and they perform these maneuvers at air shows to show off the capabilities of the Navy.

Their plane, a Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornets, is painted with a blue and gold color scheme that is symbolic of both strength and grace. It’s equipped with missiles, bombs, and guns for combat purposes if necessary.

As the leader of the Blue Angels, Commander Ryan Bernacchi is in charge of a team that includes 125 enlisted staff members and officers from several different Navy and Marine Corps job specialties, along with 30 civilians. He has been a pilot for 18 years, flying 25 different types of aircraft.

Before becoming a Blue Angel, Bernacchi was a F/A-18 pilot during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He flew 45 combat missions and spent more than 250 hours in flight while deployed. Bernacchi is also the first Naval Academy graduate to lead the Blue Angels and said it’s been great to come back to Annapolis after being away for so long—he graduated in 2001—and take part in Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium events like commissioning week and Army-Navy football games.

While the jets are the main attraction, there’s another aircraft that must travel with the team. It’s a large prop plane called a C-130 cargo aircraft. This plane is nicknamed “Fat Albert” and it carries all of the spare parts for each jet as well as their maintenance equipment.

KC 130T Fat Albert
KC 130T Fat Albert

The C-130 is also used to transport any personnel who can’t fly on the jets, including pilots who are out with injuries or illness. The most important thing about Fat Albert is that it’s painted in Blue Angels colors. Even though there are many other C-130s in use by the United States Navy, this one is unique because of its paint job and unique insignia.
Although several of the pilots have civilian jobs (like being airline pilots), there’s an entire support staff that flies on Fat Albert to make sure that everything runs smoothly at air shows and events throughout the year. The plane can hold up to 74 passengers, or even more if seats are removed from its cabin area to allow room for additional cargo.

The Blue Angels consist of 140 people. They’re split into two groups: a show group and a homegroup. The show group travels to put on the acrobatic routines that wow crowds around the country. The homegroup stays in Pensacola, where they work with engineers and aircraft mechanics to keep everything running smoothly.

The team includes eleven demonstration pilots (of which six perform each show) as well as their support team members like Lee Brooks, who’s been with the Blue Angels for 13 years and is about to hand over his role as the head of maintenance for the Blues’ flight suits. All of them are part of either the U.S. Navy or the U.S. Marine Corps and have served in different capacities before coming together under one elite banner dedicated to keeping America safe and reminding citizens what our armed forces do every day—and sometimes four times a day during weekend performances from March through November.

How old are the Blue Angels’ planes?

Blue Angels pilots are never as old as their planes, which may be more than 60 years old. The Blue Angels themselves maintain the aircraft and perform necessary upgrades when required. These planes aren’t your average lightweight, go-fast jets; they were built to last.

One of the most common questions the team gets is whether or not they worry about the age of their aircraft. The answer: not really. The team is incredibly proud of what they do and how they do it—they don’t just keep these historic aircraft in tip-top shape, but they also put on one hell of a show year after year.

The schedule

The Blue Angels, who fly F/A-18 Hornet jets, perform at about 35 shows per year across the U.S. The team trains for each show in a two-hour window. The day before the performance is set aside to make sure their newest member—“Fat Albert”—is ready and able to execute his solo maneuvers. Fat Albert, as previously mentioned, is a C-130T Hercules that transports the support team and ground equipment from base to base around the country. It is not just any plane, though; it has been modified with four Allison T56 turboprop engines and can reach a speed of 337 miles per hour and an altitude of 30,000 feet. While not involved in the actual performance, it does carry out its own air show complete with impressive takeoffs and landings before being spotted by either an F/A-18 or a KC-130 tanker plane so they can connect and refuel.

Becoming a pilot takes a lot of work and patience. You must be aware and in control of your body at all times, so staying fit is crucial to being an effective aviator. You also need to know how to communicate with every member of your team, as well as the ground crew and any other relevant personnel that you’ll be working with on a daily basis. Finally, always practice, practice, practice. It will take plenty of time and effort before you can even think about flying with a squadron like the Blue Angels, but if this is your calling, don’t give up!

You have to have at least 1,500 hours of flight time, which can take months or even years to obtain. To get started, you’ll need about $10,000 for training and certification. After getting your license with a private pilot rating, you can start logging hours by taking up clients. The pay isn’t great—as little as $20 an hour—but every hour counts toward experience.

One perk of being a pilot is that you never stop learning new things. There are advanced ratings to pursue like instrument flying and multi-engine certifications. Classes like these help pilots fly in more challenging conditions like severe weather and at night when visibility is low. More advanced certifications also open the doors for career-advancing opportunities: Commercial airline pilots must have an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) license before they clock in for their first shift.
It’s hard work, but flying jets is an awesome job.

If you’ve learned how to fly smaller planes and want to take your skills and career to the next level, there are lots of paths you can take. You may be able to join a flying club in your area, which will require some more work on your end, but it could be well worth it. If you’re looking for a more hands-on experience that will give you free flight training (and then send you off into the world), consider joining the U.S. Air Force Academy or the Navy and Marine Corps as an officer candidate.

The Blue Angels aren’t just a group of fighter jets, nor are they simply a symbol of American military might. The team of remarkable men who fly these jets represents far more than that. For starters, they’re an integral part of military recruiting and public relations. They inspire future generations to dream big, take risks, and achieve the unimaginable. Their shows also honor the sacrifices of men and women who serve in the armed forces, past and present. And their technical flying skills continue to ensure that America’s aerial superiority is maintained for years to come.

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