Blue Angels 2011

Every year 11,000,000 people look into the skies at airshows and see six blue and gold F-18s performing precision aerobatics representing the best the United States as well as the Navy and Marines have to offer.  The Blue Angels have been doing this since  June 15, 1946 and have been doing it well.

The Team consists of 16 Officers and 110 Enlisted men and women from the Navy and the Marines who spend up to two years of their military careers in a very important job; being the very public face of the Navy.  So many people with special jobs, and ones you have never heard over the loud speakers such as Brandon Settle,  Andrew Schweitzer, and Shelton Carpenter.  They keep the aircraft flying through dedication, along with hard and seemingly endless work.

The men who are more visible, yet still nameless to most are ones like Lt. Rob Kurrle who flew “Slot” for this season.  Lt. Kurrle is a native of Statesville, NC and a 2002 graduate of the US Naval Academy.  He is a mechanical engineer and earned his wings of gold in January 2004.  He transitioned into the F-18C and deployed at sea several times.  He was selected for the Blue Angels in September 2009 after more than 1,400 hours and 250 carrier landings.  This was the last show of the season and last show of his tour, after Sunday’s performance, Lt. Kurrle would move from Slot Pilot to Blue Angels Alumni.

Through this season there have been 242 pilots and 34 Flight Leader/Commanding Officers.  There have been at least 27 pilots have been killed in 65 years, with a rate of loss of 10%, this is a hazardous occupation.  Ground and support crews number well over 3000 in the past.  The Team has flown a variety of aircraft over the years, ranging from the F6F Hellcat in 1946 to the current F/A-18 Hornet.  They also have a unique transport aircraft, the world’s most famous C-130 “Fat Albert”.  Fat Albert  is flown by a Marine pilot and previously performed a JATO takeoff as a part of his demonstration.  When all the available bottles were expended in 2009, the JATO take offs became part of airshow history.

Practice makes perfect, and in the winter they practice at NAF EL Centro, CA and fly two sessions a day six days a week to get in 120 flights.   Separations get smaller and the flights get lower until they are ready to perform for the public.   They return to Pensacola in March and the season starts.  They practice on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings.  On Thursday they fly to the show, perform a practice show on Friday and the real show on the weekend.  They return to Florida on Sunday night and actually get Monday off.   Flying a F-18 six days a week, what a job, what a country….

The shows are normally high energy, high excitement events lasting about 45 minutes with speeds ranging from 120 MPH up to 700 MPH (just under the speed of sound).   While I have seen them perform countless times, it never ceases to amaze me when I look at the faces of people who are seeing them for the first time, they are simply stunned.  For as good a “routine” performance is, they seem to be better at home.  The show this year at Pensacola was flawless and a true demonstration of their incredible abilities.

In Pensacola, FL, there is one thing you can’t get anywhere else which is a chance to see the Blue Angels practice sessions.  During the season (check websites for details) on most Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, the Blues are practicing at the airfield just behind the museum.  Session starts at 8:30 AM (plan on arriving by 7:30AM), the team members sign autographs at the Museum after the Wednesday sessions.  I’ve been to several and there are always several thousand people in attendance.  This is well worth getting up for.

The Pentagon has a $926 Billion defense budget and they spend a tiny fraction ($37 Million) on the Blue Angels.  There is pressure to cut the program.  Capt. Greg McWherter, their Commanding Officer stresses that in a time of a volunteer military force, a recruiting tool such as the Blue Angels are priceless.  People who join the military must be inspired and the Blues are well suited for that role.

The Blue Angels have been the representatives of the Navy and Marines, as well as our country for 65 years.  They demonstrate the high level of skills of our military aviators and serve as the most cost effective recruiting tool the Navy has.  If you possibly can, spend an afternoon with them during their 2012 season.  You’ll be happy you did.

I would like to thank Patrick Nichols, Public Affairs Officer at NAS Pensacola for his assistance in making this story possible.

You can contact the writer Mark Hrutkay at TNMark@Me.Com.

Mark Hrutkay

Mark has been a member of the International Association of Aviation Photographers (ISAP) for several years and attends all their events and seminars. He has won several awards for his work and has been published in several aviation magazines, domestic and foreign. You can contact Mark Hrutkay at TNMark@Me.Com.

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