Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Blue Angels Air Show, +40 As Good As Ever

Last weekend, June 25 and 26, was the annual Rhode Island Air National Guard Air Show at Quonset Point.  I try to show things that are typical American cultural events and experiences so that Duang can get a better understanding and experience of what life in America is like.  I knew that she had never been to an Air Show before so taking her to Quonset Point was a high priority ... dependent upon the weather.  The weather did not seem too promising during the prior days but the forecast for Sunday seemed the better of the two days.  We woke of Sunday and found the weather to be promising for the air show.  The flying events were scheduled to start at 10:00 AM so we left Groton around 8:30.

I have seen many Blue Angels shows over the years.  The last show that I attended at Quonset Point was exactly 40 years ago when it was still an operating Navy base.  I had just graduated from nearby University of Rhode Island.  At that time the Blue Angels were flying the McDonald Douglas F4J Phantom and the war in Vietnam was on going.  The Blue Angels today fly the Boeing F-18 Hornet, a newer version of a plane that they have been demonstrating for 24 years.  Today war in Afghanistan is on going with additional involvement in conflicts in Iraq and Libya.

This year also marks the 100th Anniversary of U. S. Naval Aviation.

I have always been impressed with the ritual of the Blue Angels team preparing to commence their flight demonstration as well as their ritual at the completion of their flight.  I consider the prologue and epilogue to be integral parts of the overall Blue Angel performance.  I wanted Duang to see the complete Blue Angels performance.

Unlike 40 years ago, the Blue Angels were not set up on the main flight line of the Air Show.  The Blue Angels F-18s were parked behind the crowd that was was facing the water where the flying was taking place.  Duang and I set up our chairs right at the barrier separating the public area from the runway and facilities being used for the Blue Angels.  Since we arrived at 10:00 AM we were the first ones in position there for the Blue Angels scheduled 3:00 PM performance.  We were situated in front of Blue Angel #1 and about 20 feet from a large concrete block that anchored the cables used in the barrier to keep people away from the planes.  We turned our chairs to face the water and enjoyed the other performers in the air show.

Blue Angel #4 Arriving After Checkout Flight
I had read in the newspaper that during Saturday's performance there was an engine problem with Blue Angel #4.  On the way to Quonset I had mentioned to Duang that I thought that the air crews would have worked through the night to repair the plane.

I don't know if they crews had worked through the night, but the engine had been repaired.  Although Blue Angel #4 is piloted by Lt. Rob Kurrle, the morning checkout flight was piloted by Lt. David Tickle, Blue Angel #7 and the narrator for the show.  I suppose he was flying to maintain flight hours and to give Lt. Kurrle a break.

Blue Angel Pilot Communicating With Crew After Checkout Flight
Lt. Tickle took off with a roar, made a pass over the flight line and disappeared to less crowded skies to put the F-18 through its paces to ensure that it was fully prepared for the afternoon show.  It seemed like he was gone for around an hour when the plane returned.  The flight was a success for Blue Angel #4 was returned to its designation on the flight line between Blue Angel #3 and Blue Angel #5.  The flight line was aligned perfectly from Blue Angel #1, Flight Leader, through Blue Angel #6, Opposing Solo.  Far to the right of the flight line where some of the other show performers were staged, Blue Angel #7 the Narrator's plane was positioned.

The Job Is Nor Complete Until the Paperwork Is Complete
When I worked in construction, we had a saying that the job was not completed until the paperwork was completed.  I guess the same also applies to flying for the Blue Angels.  After the checkout flight, Lt. Tickle sought the relative comfort and shade of the back of a support van to fill out his paperwork along with the flight crew for Blue Angel #4.

It was interesting to observe a different aspect of the Blue Angels show.  Duang was intrigued by the discipline and formality associated with all aspects of the team.  Throughout the day she would say "Ohhh very nice.  Good.  America up up Thailand.  Thailand not have.  America up up Thailand money"  Later in the day I was told that a Blue Angels performance costs around $1,200,000.  For me, that price is well worth it and I consider it to be taxpayer's money well spent.

Duang and I held our positions at the barrier all afternoon long.  Occasionally one of us would leave to get a closer look at the other performances, to get water, or to just get a change of scenery.  It was in no ways boring and there always seemed to be something interesting to watch, if not interesting to photograph.  We were in it for the duration and committed to enjoy the time.

This looks serious, very serious.  Did I do something wrong?
Around 2:30, one-half hour before the scheduled start of the Blue Angels flight demonstration, things became ominous.  Three security men carrying guns started walking directly towards me.  They seemed very serious.  We had seen security personnel throughout the day but they were more like somebody's young brother parked or driving around in a pickup truck and they appeared to be unarmed.  The guards approaching in the late afternoon seemed to be professionals and were walking and riding in open military vehicles carrying some serious rifles.  Knowing that I had done nothing wrong, I continued to photograph them.  About 20 feet from Duang and I, they finally broke to the left and stopped.  They were looking at the concrete block that anchored the barrier cables.  I then realized what it was all about.  Behind the concrete block was a unattended cardboard package!  I shouted out to them and they came over to me.  I informed them that the box had been delivered by a young woman on their side of the barrier from a beige "Blue Angels Support" van.  I gave a description of the woman to them.  They asked me when was it that she placed the block there and I told them about an hour earlier.  The leader of the team, an apparent civilian, said to the others that it was about right.  There were several walkie-talkie conversations and they seemed to relax - just a little.  With my story seemingly checking out they focused on the package rather than me.  After a while, one man cautiously approached the box and looked at it very carefully.  He shook his head "Yes" and backed off.  The package remained there and the men still seemed concerned about it.  After about 10 minutes, I called the civilian leader over and told him that if they needed someone to go over and open the box, I would do it but it would cost them ... as I pointed over the the Blue Angels flight line and said "I wanted a ride on any one of those planes"  He smiled and said that he had been working security for the Blue Angels for six years and had not gotten a ride yet.  I knew then my best chance to get a ride was not going to be good enough.  Interestingly, when the Blue Angels were performing he was walking the barrier along the flight paths on the other side of the show so I suspect he was the head of Blue Angel security.  As for the box, it remained there behind the concrete block until just before the planes arrived after performing.   Several Navy enlisted people arrived opened up the box and passed out souvenir brochures to the spectators along the barrier.  The Blue Angel pilots then autographed the brochures for people - including Duang.

Once the security threat was resolved the Blue Angel flight demonstration began.  The show starts with the Blue Angels support C-130 plane, "Fat Albert" taking off and performing.

"Fat Albert" In Flight Over Quonset Point

With "Fat Albert" entertaining the 55,000 people in attendance, the Blue Angel pilots and ground crews commenced their ritual to get the F/A-18s airborne.

Lead by Capt.McWherter the Blue Angel Pilots March Down Flight Line to Their Craft.

The six performing pilots lead by Capt. Greg McWherter, Blue Angel Flight Lead, marched in unison along the flight line from Blue Angel #6 towards Blue Angel #1.  As they approached Blue Angel 6, all the pilots in unison returned the salute of the Crew Chief.  Lt. Simonsen, Opposing Solo pilot, broke off from the marching pilots to mount his F/A-18.  As each of the remaining pilots approached his jet, he returned his Crew Chief's salute, broke from the pilot's formation and made his way to the awaiting ladder to mount his plane.  The last pilot to climb aboard his jet was Capt. McWherter; as the team's leader he is the last to mount, first to take off, and first to land.

Capt. McWherter and His Crew Chief Saluting

Flight Leader/Commander McWherter Climbs Aboard His F/A-18

Blue Angel #1 Commencing Roll Down Flight Line

Once the Flight Leader/Commander was aboard his craft the team went through a synchronized ritual of closing their canopies, starting their engines, completing preflight inspections and checkouts, before Blue Angel #1 broke from ground formation to commence his roll down the flight line past the other craft.  Unlike 40 years ago, the planes did not need external auxiliary equipment to start their engines.  After a few seconds of high pitched whining, the engines burst into a throaty roar. Just after being passed by Blue Angel #1, LCDR Tomaszeski taxied Blue Angel #2 behind his leader.  This ballet of aircraft continued until all six Blue Angels were following their leader down the runway.

Capt McWherter Leading the Way
The Show is On!

Part way into the flight demonstration there was a mechanical problem with Blue Angel #1.  I did not hear exactly what the problem was other than it was a "minor mechanical" problem.  later while editing some of the 706 photographs that I took during the day, I noticed that Blue Angel #1 had not deployed the arresting hook while the other planes in formation had.  I suspect that this may have been the problem.

Blue Angel #1 Returns With "Mechanical " Problem
Capt. McWherter returned to the base.  While he was away, the remainder of the pilots continued the demonstration for a while and then flew holding patterns off in the distance.  About twenty minutes later after landing, Capt McWherter roared back into the air ... flying Blue Angel #7.

The Show Must Go On!  Capt McWherter Roars Back Flying Blue Angel #7
The flight demonstration resumed and was everything that I expected and had hoped for.  Duang was in a constant state of excitement with frequent exclamations of "Ohhh!"  "Awhhh!"  "Very Good, Very Nice!"

Flying Blue Angel #7, Flight Leader/Commander Lands At Flying Demonstration Conclusion

At the conclusion of the flight demonstration, Capt McWherter lead his team in landing and taxiing to the original staging area for the Blue Angels.  Although the flight demonstration was over, the show was not over.  Just as there are a series of choreographed movements and ritual for the Blue Angels to take off there are similar movements and rituals for the Blue Angels upon landing. Once again Duang and I relocated; this time from the main air show flight line to our original location at the Blue Angel flight line.

Capt McWherter About Ready to Turn into Formation

The Count On Deck Is Six; All Present and Accounted For ...

Flight Leader/Commander Exits His Jet
 Starting from Blue Angel #6 the pilots form up and march in unison towards Flight Leader/Commander Capt McWherter.  The flight crews having completed they work of securing and chocking the plane's wheels stand at attention.

LCDR Tomaszeski Congratulates His Crew For A Job Well Done

Blue Angel Pilots March Towards Their Flight Leader/Commander

It had been a great day.  Ye. s the sky could have been bluer.  The skies could have been higher.  The Blue Angels did perform an abbreviated show.  I could have been rewarded with a ride in a F/A-18 but was not.  It took us two hours to exit the base at the conclusion of the show.  But it is like life, happiness is not to be found in "What could have been" or "What should have been".  Happiness is found in taking pleasure of what there is and what you have.  Duang and I returned to Groton; both very happy.

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