PENSACOLA, Fla. -- As the U.S. Navy Blue Angels gear up for this year's air shows, a group of unsung heroes will place their job dedication and professionalism on the line prior to each aircraft's departure.
The pilots of the U.S. Navy's elite Flight Demonstration Squadron are
the first to say that the aerobatic jets they fly really belong to the
mechanics and technicians who keep them operational each day.
They maintain the existing aircraft with new parts at their home at
Naval Air Station Pensacola, while testing new aircraft systems prior to
and during an air show to keep the high performance aircraft reliable.
The maintenance and supply teams are made up of nearly a hundred
enlisted men and women of the Navy and Marines who bring special job
qualities to maintain the aircraft.
Seven F/A-18 Hornet jets, each painted with a high gloss blue and
yellow paint job, and a C-130 Hercules transport aircraft,
affectionately known as "Fat Albert", will take to the skies for each
air show during the 2014 season.
As the Gulf breeze blew across on the flight line, this aerospace
reporter spoke with two of the Navy's most experienced engineers about
the demands of their jobs -- both at home and away.
"I take care of that aircraft, making sure that everything is good
for it's pilot," Aviation Ordinance First Class Eli Lang, the crew chief
for the Angel 7 jet, said with a smile of pride. "My job details engine
tune-up operations, check the flight control instruments and check
though the pre- and post-flight inspections of the aircraft on a
Blue Angels Aviation Electrician Tyler Nuhfer said, "When you pull an
all nighter to get the plane ready for the next day, it's a very big
sense of accomplishment. When you get that jet off for an air show it's a
really great feeling."
As the Hornets are put through the routines above, on the ground, the
maintenance crews observe with binoculars and later record post-flight
analysis to ensure the jets are performing as expected.
AE1 Nuhfer explained, "No air show has been cancelled due to a
maintenance issue since the Blue Angels began in 1946. That's a huge
bragging right we have on the enlisted side, keeping the aircraft in the
The Blue Angels will return to the air show circuit March 15
following a year off due to the government's 2013 sequestration. Today,
the maintenance crews are preparing for the eight month season by
working long hours as the Hornets are put through a strict practice
schedule at their winter home at the Naval Air Facility at El Centro in
During this time, the Blue Angels team will work as one as the pilots
practice for their first air show of 2014 at El Centro. The six Hornets
will practice the speeds and maneuvers of each demonstration timed by
the tick of the clock.
It's this dedication to detail which keeps the entire team ready during performance week.
"This is a good experience for anybody to have to come together from across the naval fleet to work together," AO1 Lang said.
The maintenance team are veterans who served aboard aircraft carriers
for multiple years before volunteering to serve with the Blues.
2014 will see the team travel to show sites in Hawaii, California,
Tennessee and Washington to name a few. The team will also perform a
traditional fly over during the Naval Academy graduation ceremony in
"When we go to an air show, we take about forty team members with
us," Nuhfer explained. "We arrive a day early to get everything set up
as far as support equipment, and learn what hanger will we work out of
and then the pilots fly in. We are there to support them until the air
Each 56-foot long Hornet carries 11,000 pounds of fuel to stay aloft for a nearly 45 minute performance.
The aircraft also endures untold stress during parts of the aerobatic
performance as they pull up to 7G's (seven times one gravity). One
demonstration has the jets soar upside down at over 400 m.p.h while only
eighteen inches apart from another Hornet.
Although the jets can soar past the speed of sound, the Blue Angels
keep their aircraft from going super sonic over land as not to crack
windows of homes or cars on the ground.
A long time aviation electrician, Nuhfer discussed his role with the
Blues, "The whole F/A-18 is practically fly by wire. Anything that has a
wire going to it, we fix."
"Flight controls are not cables going to your surfaces but it's wires
that go to a sensor that tells a computer to move a surface. Anything
from the fuel, to flight controls, air speed, everything is wired and
keeps us busy," Nuhfer continued. "We have the oldest jets in the Navy,
some are 20 to 30 year old jets, that makes the wires that much older
and that much easier to break."
As you listen to both Lang and Nuhfer talk about their jobs, one can
hear the pride in their voices as they discuss just how they prepare
each jet to go dazzle the crowds.
Nuhfer calls it an honor to work with the Blue Angels, and one of the last traditions still around in the Navy.
Lang echoed the sentiments of the team by saying, "We did our job to
make these aircraft get in the air for the American public see what we
have here, and it's satisfying to see the smiles on the children's faces
as they utter 'Ooh and Aah's' during each show."
(Charles Atkeison reports on aerospace, science and technology. Follow his updates via Twitter @AbsolutSpaceGuy.)