70 years in the air

As the Blue Angels roar into San Diego this month for the MCAS Miramar Air Show, the Navy’s Flight Demonstration Team is celebrating its 70th year in flight.

hellcatAt the end of World War II, Fleet Adm. Chester W. Nimitz ordered the formation of a flight demonstration team “to keep the public interested in naval aviation,” according to the official record. In fact, the Navy wanted to generate public and political support for a larger allocation of the shrinking defense budget. Having defeated the Axis, the Navy brass was now turning its sights on a different kind of adversary — the Air Force.

Lt. Cmdr. Roy M. “Butch” Voris knew that the Air Force would soon become an independent service branch and would enjoy support on Capitol Hill at budget time. When the Navy tasked Voris to assemble and train a flight demonstration team, it picked the right man. A seven-kill air ace who treasured his personal recipe for “Tennessee Hog Heaven Pork Barbecue,” Voris was even-tempered, cool-headed, and a demanding taskmaster. “He was a good guy: pleasant, cheerful, approachable,” said biographer Barrett Tillman. “He enjoyed telling stories about others more than about himself.”

Voris launched his team with F6F-5 Hellcats. The robust Hellcat was the fighter that had beaten the air arm of the Imperial Japanese Navy in the Pacific. The team made its first appearance May 10, 1946.

bearcatWithin months of launching the as-yet unnamed team, which initially made about a dozen appearances, Voris learned that the lighter, potentially more maneuverable F8F-1 Bearcat — which had never seen combat — might become available. With the same engine, but weighing about two-thirds as much as a Hellcat, the Bearcat was ideal to demonstrate maneuverability. The F8F-1 became the team’s aircraft on Aug. 25, 1946.

One of the team members visited New York and dined at a nightclub called the Blue Angel: The team now had a name. An attempt by the Navy at an earlier juncture to label them the Blue Lancers had gotten nowhere.

On Sept. 29, 1946, Lt. J.G. Ross “Robby” Robinson failed to recover from a dive in his F8F-1, crashed, and was killed. He was the first of 27 fatalities in the Blue Angels’ 70-year history.

In 1947, Lt. Cmdr. Robert Clarke replaced Voris as team leader and introduced the Blue Angels’ well-known diamond formation and the loop and barrel roll maneuvers while remaining in the same formation.

Gathering a reputation for its spectacular aerobatic maneuvers the team fought the tendency of the press to call them a “stunt team.” In early days, one of the Blue Angels’ goals was to outshine the Air Force, which became an independent service branch on Sept. 18, 1947. Although the Air Force and its predecessor services operated a number of aerobatic teams, the well-known Thunderbirds did not come into existence until May 25, 1953.

pantherThe Blue Angels flew the F8F-1 Bearcat until a final appearance at Madison, Wis., on Aug. 14, 1949. However, throughout 1949, the team was gradually preparing to transition to the Grumman F9F-2 Panther, the standard Navy jet fighter of the era. Lt. Cmdr. John J. “Johnny” Magda joined the team at that time, and became its commander a few months later. A five-kill air ace, Magda had flown at the Battle of Midway and survived a ditching and five days in a life raft. Magda led the team’s first Panther jet performance at Beaumont, Texas, Aug. 20, 1949.

It was a time when jet engines were evolving. Several versions of the Panther were placed on duty with different engines. The Blue Angels’ Panthers dispensed with armament and some other features, reducing their weight to around 14,000 pounds, but Magda and others initially questioned whether jets could be as maneuverable as propeller-driven aircraft.

Lt. Cmdr. R.E. “Dusty” Rhodes, the team’s third commander in 1949, designed the official Blue Angels insignia. It is nearly identical to the current design. In the cloud in the upper-right quadrant, the aircraft were originally shown heading down and to the right. Over the years, the plane silhouettes have changed with the team’s aircraft.

After the Korean War began, the Navy decided to return the Blue Angels to fleet duty. Re-equipped with cannon-armed F9F-2B Panthers, and led by Magda, the team formed the nucleus of fighter squadron VF-191, “Satan’s Kittens,” assigned to USS Princeton (CV 37). In a move that has never been repeated by either the Navy or the Air Force, the Navy sent its flight demonstration team into battle.

On March 9, 1951, Magda led a strike against North Korean and Chinese troops. He was making a low-level attack with rockets and guns when gunfire struck his Panther. Magda’s wingmen saw his F9F-2B consumed with flames. The pilot managed to get the aircraft out to sea, but it went down in the water and Magda, just 33, was lost. The Navy posthumously awarded him the Navy Cross, the nation’s second-highest award for valor.

In October 1951, the Blue Angels be re-formed as a flight demonstration team. Voris, now a commander, had been on the verge of retiring, but was brought back to reorganize the team and did so on Oct. 25, 1951. The Blue Angels took up station at Corpus Christi, Texas, which had been their pre-Korea home, and began flying the F9F-5 Panther.

On July 7, 1952, two Blue Angels Panthers collided at low level during a demonstration at Corpus Christi. Voris was able to land his badly damaged aircraft but Lt. Bud Wood ejected. He never separated from his seat and was killed on impact.

The “Blues,” as they were now being labeled in shorthand, made many appearances in the F9F-5, including one at Bolling Air Force Base, Washington, D.C., on Armed Forces Day in May 1954. For the first time they appeared with — and sailors, never unbiased, say they outperformed — the Air Force’s newly formed Thunderbirds, flying F-84G Thunderjets. In more recent years, Pentagon policy was changed to prohibit the two teams performing within 150 miles of each other.

cougarFor a brief period in late 1954, the Blues operated their first swept-wing aircraft, the F9F-6 Cougar, essentially a Panther with swept wings. Its cockpit was nearly identical to the Panther’s, making transition easy, and the “dash six” Cougar actually had better carrier handling characteristics than the Panther. But the F9F-6 had been rushed into service — during the Korean War, the Navy lacked a swept-wing fighter comparable to the Air Force F-86 Sabre or Soviet MiG-15 — and early examples had a variety of minor technical issues, including poor latitudinal and longitudinal control. A modification to control surfaces solved the problem in the fleet, but the Blue Angels reverted to the F9F-5 Panther briefly and in December 1954, began flying the much-modified and more robust F9F-8 version of the swept-wing Cougar.

The first Marine Corps pilot, Capt. Chuck Hiett, joined the Blue Angels, and they relocated to their current home at Pensacola, Fla., in 1954. According to an official history of the Blue Angels, in August 1954, “Team leader Lt. Cmdr. Ray Hawkins became the first naval aviator to survive an ejection at supersonic speeds when his F9F-6 became uncontrollable on a cross-country flight.” Looking back, it is easy to wonder how an F9F-6 could have reached supersonic speed.

tigerIn 1957, the team made the transition to the F11F-1 Tiger. The Tiger was one of the Navy’s first supersonic fighters, but was very much a modest, interim aircraft unlike the F-100 Super Sabre the Air Force’s Thunderbirds were flying. The Blue Angels flew the Tiger in two configurations, the short- and long-nosed models.

As the United States became embroiled in Southeast Asia, the Navy resisted any urge to return the Blue Angels to combat status. For reasons unclear, the team stayed with the F-11A Tiger long after it ceased to be an operational fleet warplane.

phantomThe F-4 Phantom II owned all of the superlatives in the world of the 1960s and it was inevitable, perhaps, that the Blue Angels would make the transition to this new aircraft — following the example of the Air Force Thunderbirds. The Phantom II had been designed as a fleet defense interceptor and was not the easiest machine to fling around the sky, especially in close-quarters maneuvers near large crowds. The Blues learned how to perform their act in the Phantom II and embellished it: A favorite maneuver, not possible in previous aircraft, was the “dirty loop,” in which a Phantom II took off, left the gear and flaps down, and climbed directly into a loop.

skyhawkAt the end of their 1973 season, with Cmdr. Tony Less newly in charge, the Blue Angels retired their F-4J Phantoms and began training for 1974 with the A-4F Skyhawk, called the “Foxtrot Hotrod” by some for its light weight and agility. The change was a reflection of the fuel crisis of the era. Initially, eight A-4Fs were modified for Blue Angels use, with removal of the “humpback” avionics pod, installation of a drag chute, a control stick “load feel” device, a smoke generator, and a self-contained, foldable cockpit access ladder.

On Nov. 8, 1986, marking their 40th anniversary, the Blue Angels converted to the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet strike fighter. As with the Phantom previously, they were again able to perform a slow, high angle of attack “tail sitting” maneuver, and to fly the “dirty loop” in formation with gear down — a maneuver not performed by the Thunderbirds. hornetAlso in 1986, Lt. Cmdr. Donnie Cochran became the Blue Angels’ first African-American aviator; he returned in 1994 to lead the team.

As they thrill air show crowds, lure recruits, and showcase naval aviation, the Blue Angels carry on a rich tradition. The squadron’s six demonstration pilots fly the Hornet in about 70 shows at 34 locations throughout the United States each year, where they still employ many of the same practices and techniques used in their aerial displays in 1946.

The Blue Angels perform at the MCAS Miramar Air Show Sept. 23 – Sept. 25. For more information and schedules, go to www.miramarairshow.com.



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