The Blue Angels are the United States Navy’s flight demonstration squadron. They were established in 1946, making them the second oldest formal flying aerobatic team in the world, after the French Patrouille de France. Sixteen officers and one hundred ten enlisted personnel are the team that makes up the squadron.
Recently the Blue Angels flew at the Los Angeles County Air Show, held at Fox Field in Lancaster, California. Given that Lancaster is located near Edwards Air Force Base, and given that Lockheed, Boeing and Northrop, among others, build and test their aircraft there and frequently take off and land from runways in nearby Palmdale, residents of the Antelope Valley are accustomed to both seeing and hearing planes overhead. Sonic booms are not uncommon. But when the Blue Angels arrived about a week before the start of the air show, however, the noise level rose to a new high. I was frequently startled last week by the sound of jets buzzing low over my house and making my windows rattle.
For the past year, thanks to budget cuts associated with sequestration, the Blue Angels have been grounded. Their appearance on Friday, March 21, at The Los Angeles County Air Show, was their first public demonstration since April 1, 2013. But for me, it had been nearly four decades.
The last time I had seen the Blue Angels perform was when I was in high school in Fallon, Nevada. There’s a Naval Air Station in Fallon: sort of odd, given that Fallon’s in the middle of a desert a long way from any ocean. Also odd: my dad, a member of the Air Force, was stationed there.
Why was a sergeant from the U.S. Air Force stationed at a Navy base in the middle of a desert? My father was trained in radar, and the radar site at the Naval Air Station was run by the Air Force, not the Navy. So they needed a small contingent of Air Force personnel.
In previous years, at various Air Force bases, I’d been privileged to see the Air Force’s acrobatic team, the Thunderbirds, perform. The Blue Angels flew the same sort of acrobatics. And at the time, the two different acrobatic teams even used similar aircraft: the Blue Angels flew the McDonnell F-4J Phantom, while the Air Force’s Thunderbirds used the McDonnell F-4E Phantom.
A few years later, while I was in college, I worked a couple of summers on a kibbutz in Israel, where I regularly witnessed still other F-4 Phantoms flying, though not in air shows: they were the primary fighter used by the Israeli Air Force.
Israel is a very tiny country, about the size of New Jersey, and the kibbutz I was on was located on the border with Jordan, and also near the Golan Heights, bordering Syria. The Phantoms’ sharp, banking turns above the kibbutz that kept them in Israeli airspace were accompanied by an odd, strained groaning that I had only ever heard before in those air shows, when those planes made their tight rolls and turns in acrobatic maneuvers. In Israel, it was just normal, daily flying that kept them from creating international incidents.
This past week, when the Blue Angles were flying over Lancaster, they were using F/A-18 Hornets, the current primary fighter jet used by the U.S. Navy. The Thunderbirds, in contrast, are currently flying F-16Cs.
Over the next few years, however, those F/A-18s will be replaced by the F-35 Lightning II, the joint strike fighter which is being built by Lockheed for all three branches of the American armed services: the Air Force, the Navy, and the Marines. Each branch’s version of the F-35 will be slightly different. The Air Force version will do conventional take offs and landings. The Marine version can perform short take offs and landings, similar to the old British-made Harrier Jump Jets. The Navy’s version of the plane will be designed with the necessary additions enabling landings and take offs from aircraft carriers.
Altogether, the three services will purchase nearly 2500 of the airplanes over the next two decades. Additional numbers will be sold to our NATO and other close allies, such as the UK, Australia, Canada, Italy, South Korea, Japan, Turkey and Israel.
Once again my middle daughter has a job at the local minor league baseball stadium that is within walking distance of my house. But her first time at work this season was not for a Jethawk’s baseball game. Instead, she worked at the meet-and-greet party for the jet pilots of the Blue Angels, who shook hands and signed autographs for anyone who showed up at the baseball stadium. Jacob Nelson & The Tone Wranglers gave a concert, and after the sun went down there was a spectacular fireworks show. My daughter loves her job.