Seventy Years Strong: The U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels
On April 24, 1946, shortly after the Second World War ended, Admiral Chester Nimitz, then Chief of Naval Operations, directed that a “flight demonstration team be organized within the Naval Advanced Training Command to represent the Navy at air shows and similar events”. Seven decades later, the Blue Angels team has expanded, reorganized, been to war and back, and has become one of the most visible and anticipated group of performers in the air show industry. Here’s a look at some of the team’s highlights over the years, during the eras of each type of aircraft they flew.
The Grumman F6F Hellcat year: 1946
The team formed at NAS Jacksonville FL with Lt. Commander Roy “Butch” Voris as the team’s original commander; he chose three more pilots – all bachelors – because, he said, the group had only flying to think about. After a month and a half of training with World War II-era Grumman F6F Hellcats, the team was cleared to perform at events. Their first exhibition was at their home airfield in Jacksonville on June 15, 1946. The show involved a three-Hellcat formation plus another pilot in a solo SNJ trainer replicating a Japanese Zero fighter. A series of choreographed aerial maneuvers ended up with the “Zero” trailing smoke, and a dummy parachutist escaping the “doomed” aircraft.
The Flight Exhibition Team now needed a name, and the base’s newspaper quickly sponsored a contest with a $10 prize going to the winning moniker. The “Blue Lancers” won the contest, but the team never adopted it in practice. Towards the end of June, a team member saw an advertisement for “The Blue Angel” nightclub, and the name became an overnight hit. The team put this name forward for Navy approval, which occurred in July. The first official performance of the Navy’s Blue Angels took place at the World’s Fair in Omaha Nebraska on July 19, 1946.
The team flew the Hellcat for 4 months and 10 air shows. Originally three fighters and a spare were used, then a solo fighter was added to the routine. These aircraft were painted dark “navy blue” and had gold-colored trim.
The Grumman F8F Bearcat years: 1946 – 1949
The Blue Angels transitioned to the Grumman Bearcat quickly, performing in their new mounts for the first time in Denver, Colorado on August 24, 1946. The next year, with new team leader Lt. Commander Robert Clarke at the helm, the team changed some of the maneuvers during the display. At Birmingham, Alabama on June 7, 1947, the four-ship diamond formation, still used today, was unveiled. Also in 1947, a fifth Bearcat – a solo aircraft, was added to the routine.
Lt. Commander R.E. “Dusty” Rhodes took command of the Blue Angels in 1948. The Bearcats wore the name “Blue Angels” for the first time, the SNJ color scheme removed the Japanese symbols, and “U.S. Navy” was applied. On July 2, 1948, over 2 million spectators watched the Blue Angels perform at Coney Island NY. At the end of the 1948 show season, the Blue Angels moved their home to NAS Corpus Christi TX, while remaining administratively under the Advanced Training Command.
Lt. Cmdr. Rhodes and Virginia Porter, an illustrator for the Naval Air Advanced Training Command, designed the Blue Angels Emblem, which was approved in 1949. Over the years, the aircraft types in the upper right portion of the official team emblem have changed with the aircraft flown by the team.
The SNJ was replaced with another Bearcat in 1949, which was painted bright yellow and named “Beetle Bomb”, after a race horse character in a popular song of that time. That brought the team up to six aircraft for flying displays. A dedicated R4D Skytrain was added for logistical and transport roles. August 14, 1949 marked the final performance by the Bearcat team at Madison WI, although a solo Bearcat continued into the 1950 season.
The Grumman F9F Panther years: 1949 – 1950
Beginning in the second week in June, 1949, the Blue Angels pilots began qualifying in the straight-winged Grumman Panther jet fighter, even while performing in Bearcats during weekend air shows. In Beaumont TX on August 20, 1949, the first Blue Angels jet performance ensued. With the change of aircraft, the Blue Angels moved their home again… this time to Whiting Field, in Pensacola FL. This was required due to the increased length of runway needed for their early jet aircraft. It also was a training base, and helped to serve the Advanced Training Command’s needs with the “new” jet aircraft.
Half-way through the 1950 air show season, the Blue Angels, under the command of Lt. Commander Jonny Magda, were activated to combat status for the Korean War. NAS Dallas saw the last air show that the Blue Angels performed that year on July 30th; the team stood down and the pilots then became the nucleus of the new VFA-191 “Satan’s Kittens” fighter squadron. Lt. Commander Magda unfortunately became the first pilot of the Blue Angels to be lost in combat during April, 1951.
The Grumman F9F Panther years: 1951 – 1955
The Blue Angels were officially recommissioned on October 25, 1951, returning to NAS Corpus Cristi TX. Lt. Commander Butch Voris returned to lead the team when it returned to the skies in newer Grumman F9F-5 Panthers. On June 19, 1952, the team flew its’ first show after reforming; the Bearcat had seen its last days and a new Lockheed TO-2 (T-33 Shooting Star) took its place as a support aircraft.
In 1952, the team’s solo pilots were issued a pair of Vought F7U Cutlass all-weather fighters to fly. Lieutenant Harding “Mac” MacKnight was one of those soloists, and flew the Cutlass only 23 hours before they were returned. They were flown at only 5 air shows, including the opening of Philadelphia’s new international airport, but were discarded after MacKnight’s jet had an inflight engine fire.
In 1953, the Douglas R4D was traded for a Curtiss R5C Commando for the year; an upgraded R4D-8 “Super Dakota” would replace the short-lived Curtiss in 1954. Also in 1954, Marine Captain Chuck Hiett joined the team as a pilot, the first Marine in a long line of aviators from that branch of service to pilot Blue Angel jets.
The Grumman F9F Cougar years: 1955 – 1957
In August 1953, the Blue Angels accepted early versions of the new Grumman F9F-6 Cougar, a swept-wing variant of the earlier Panther. On the way back to NAS Corpus Christi from Grumman’s Bethpage, Long Island plant, Lt. Commander Ray Hawkins’ jet experienced a runaway stabilizer trim tab and entered a steep uncontrollable dive. Hawkins managed to eject; he is credited with the first successful supersonic ejection in the Navy. The Cougars weren’t displayed by the Blue Angels until April 4, 1955 at NAS Corpus Christi, with the use of the refined F9F-8 series.
A new support plane, a four-engined R5D (C-54/DC-4) was delivered in the team’s blue and yellow color scheme for the 1955 season too. And, a F9F-8T Cougar trainer – a 2-seat variant – was added.
Ten years after the Blue Angels’ founding, the team moved to NAS Sherman Field, in Pensacola FL… their current home. In 1956, the two opposing solos were brought into the displays, and along with the diamond formation, the six aircraft show has remained standard for 60 years. The team’s first international display was at Toronto, Ontario in 1956.
In 1957, the Blue Angels began their off-season training at NAF El Centro, CA. Since then, that tradition has continued; normally a season-opening show is still presented at El Centro too. Most of the season was flown in the -8 Cougar, while the team practiced in their new Grumman F11F Tigers too. This year, the team helped to open the new Cleveland airport, and performed in Toronto, Ontario too.
The Grumman F11F Tiger years: 1957 – 1968
On July 4, 1957, the supersonic F11F-1 Tiger debuted with the Blue Angels. The Mach 2 capable Tiger was afterburner equipped, which helped it become the Blue Angels’ newest mount; the competing Douglas A4D Skyhawk and North American FJ-3 Fury didn’t.
In 1958, the Blue Angels helped celebrating the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway. They feted the New Mexico City Airport in 1964 in front of 1.5 million people, and made a European Tour in 1965 which included the Paris Air Show.
In 1968, the popular 6-ship Delta formation was first flown, and is still used today. As the F-11F Tiger and TF-9 Cougar were phased ut, it ended Grumman’s streak of continuously supplying aircraft to the Blue Angels since their inception in 1946.
The McDonnell Douglas F-4J Phantom II years: 1969 – 1974
One story about why the Blue Angels flew America’s frontline jet fighter was relayed from a former “Boss” who said that when the team heard the Air Force Thunderbirds were going to fly the Phantom, the Navy had to match them… after all, the F-4 was originally a Navy aircraft!
On August 6, 1969. Hundreds of windows were blown out in an eight block downtown area of Kelowna, B.C.. According to a Canadian Broadcasting Company story, Blue Angels pilot Marine Captain Vince Donile “exceeded the speed of sound during the four plane cross portion of the “Diamond Vertical Opener” maneuver. The accident occurred during a practice show before the International Regatta. The broken glass was cleaned up, and the Blue Angels flight demonstration went on as planned the following day. One estimate was that the U.S. Government paid $1 million to cover the damage!
From 1969 to 1970, the Blue Angels operated a C-121J Constellation as their support aircraft. A Lockheed C-130F Hercules joined the team later in 1970, flown by Marine pilots.
In 1970, the Blue Angels performed their 1,500th show while flying the F-4, and their estimated one hundred millionth spectator watched them perform at Quito, Ecuador.
Unfortunately, Phantoms were gas guzzlers, and a combination of the U.S.’s first oil crisis and a series of accidents grounded the Phantoms during the 1974 season.
The McDonnell Douglas A-4 Skyhawk years: 1974 – 1986
After the F-4 Phantom was grounded, the 1974 the team reorganized, and became known as the Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron using the lighter and more economical A-4F Skyhawk.
During the Bicentennial celebrations in 1976, which was also their 30th anniversary, the Blue Angels flew 80 shows. By the end of the year, an estimated 123 million spectators had seen the Angels fly. On October 8, 1977, the Blue Angels performed their 2,000th show.
Beginning in November, 1975, the Marine C-130 F/T displayed a JATO-assisted takeoff as part of the show.
In 1978, Aviation Technician Penny Edwards became the first woman to be part of the Blue Angels ground crew.
The McDonnell Douglas/Boeing F/A-18A+B Hornet years: 1986 – 2010 and
McDonnell Douglas/Boeing F/A-18C+D Hornet years: 2010 – present
The earliest F/A-18A and B versions the Blue Angels received were the oldest airframes in the naval community. Differences in the flight control systems meant that before the older A and B models were retired, the newer C and D versions coming to the team needed modifications to their systems to allow Blue Angels Hornet pilots to have the same “feel” during their maneuvers.
The last JATO takeoff demonstration by the C-130 was in November, 2009. A ready source of inexpensive JATO bottles was depleted when Vietnam War-era stocks of the bottles were flooded by Hurricane Katrina at NAS New Orleans a few years earlier. New bottles’ costs were too high to justify new production and continuation of this crowd pleasing “act”.
Grand Forks, ND was the site of the Angels’ 3,000th show on September 7, 1990. The team made another European Tour in 1992, performing in Moscow, Russia among their stops.
In 1998, the new “Boss” of the Blue Angels, Commander Patrick Driscoll, made then first landing of a Blue Angels aircraft on an active aircraft carrier, the USS Harry S. Truman, while it was underway in the Atlantic Ocean.
In 2014, Marine Captain Katie Higgins became the first female pilot to join the Blue Angels, sharing piloting duties of the C-130 affectionately known as Fat Albert”.
2016 marks the 30th year of Hornet operations by the Blue Angels. So far, there are no official plans announced for the Blue Angels to transition to a C-130J or to F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, although rumors surface from time to time. Officially, the mission of today’s Blue Angels 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.” With the so-called “Budget Sequestration” cutbacks of air show performances in 2013, most of that season was cancelled, and rumors of the disbandment of the Squadron were discussed. Luckily, their operation was restored for the 2014 season, as “outreach” events were identified as being very important for the nation’s military branches for community involvement and recruitment activities. Today, the Squadron is still used as an important tool for the Navy to be represented at air shows and other events, just the way Admiral Nimitz directed it to be back in 1946.