The Blue Angels

By Boone T. Guyton

You watched a take-off from which in essence represented operations from the deck of any Naval Carrier when a striking force was being launched. At no more than five-second intervals, one after another, the “team” roared down the runway and took off. You expected to settle back and yawn for a duration of time until these airplanes had gained altitude and speed to start the show. No such waiting. As each fighter became airborne, the wheels retracted, and, following the leader, each pulled immediately up from the runway to execute an Immelman turn as though eagerly reaching up to intercept the enemy. Now you watched the leader who rolled out and continued in a dive back toward the runway. Into his lip microphone that pilot was calling signals, “Roll left,” “pull up,” “loop,” “Immelman,” “cross over,” “dive.” Then he pointed the nose of his stubby Bearcat for the field and yelled—“formate” into his mike. The remaining three quickly joined him in a four-plane echelon formation and a much used Navy war time unit was intact.

Such a four-plane formation employed so skillfully in the last war gave cause for its leader, out-numbered fifteen to one, to exclaim without hesitation,

“Red Leader to Carrier, I have 60 Zeros surrounded and am proceeding to attack!” All of his four planes got back and were accredited 17 “kills.”

From 50 feet above the runway to 3000 feet over the mass of upturned faces, the four single seater Bearcat fighters proceeded to demonstrate the flawless formation flying and maneuvering vitally required in time of combat. A Cuban Eight (the figure eight drawn in flight in vertical position), with each of the four planes rolling individually yet maintaining formation station; a slow barrel roll—the whole formation completing this with wing to tail as though strapped together; four planes as one—pulling up from field level through a high wing over with reversed echelon rolls—smooth, precise formation flying always together, always a team. You found no time to blink as a perfect diamond formation barrel rolled across you overhead. “Great,” the radio report stated.

If you saw this show you gasped at the spectacular, “hairy” flying. You were subjected to a “thrill a minute” routine that was polished like the wings of Navy blue. Engines roared, props whined, and the noise in the air was lusty. You ogled at the split second timing, the four planes flashing together, the four fighters pressing the attack—“We’ve got 60 of ‘em cornered”—the feints, the unexcelled teamwork. You got the powder, burn stench of melees over Guadalcanal, Munda, Bougainville, Truk, Rabaul, Okinawa, Formosa, Tokyo. The Navy’s aerial demonstration of how they had won was brought home from those strange sounding places. “Perfect flying,” the newsmen reported.

At one point the four bright blue planes split up into two two-plane combat sections. The leader’s mike gave out the orders heard only in four other airplanes, intended only for pilots to decipher. “Okay, Frank, put it in there. We’re rolling out at angels Five!” Into their midst as though pressing an attack flew a fifth airplane. It was painted yellow and had a rising sun placarded in red on fuselage and wings. Quickly, two of the fighters pull off and up as the “enemy” plane turns to attack. The other two separate and weave back and forth so the “enemy” can never start at one without having to face head-on, the guns of the other. The defense is set. Now down out of the sun dive the two teammates in flat, spread formation. With guns smoking they score, pull away and deftly join forces as four planes, weaving, waiting for another attacker. Such tactics spelled doom to the hordes of enemy on-rushers over Guadalcanal, where it was first conceived and practiced. From that day on the defensive weave and coordinated formation attack was a basic training ritual for Navy fighter pilots.

As the perfectly executed attack by the formation planes sent the yellow menace spinning and smoking (seemingly) into the ground with its “pilot” bailing out, a little man in the grandstand exclaimed,

“Gawd, if they don’t look like blue angels!”

The world’s finest flight exhibition team had found its name. A press reporter tapped it through his typewriter and into headlines. From that point forward to the present day, this precision flight team has been officially billed the Blue Angels, and they have demonstrated some of the hottest Navy tactical flying on record. Their performance at more than 175 shows across the country has made seasoned veteran pilots gape. The five Naval Aviators who make up this flying show are the demand of the nation.

“Of course,” says Lt. G.W. Hoskins, one of the current team, “we took a lot of ribbing for awhile about our fancy name. That is, by our brother pilots. In fact,” he said, “it was quite a job to sell the name officially to the Navy Department. We are not initially organized for public exhibition purposes.”

Lt. Comdr. R.E. “Dusty” Rhodes, the leader, Lt. (jg) J.H. “Jake” Robcke, Lt. (jg) H.R. Heagerty, Lt. (jg) E.F. “Fritz” Roth and Lt. (jg) Hoskins form the present team. A sixth, Lt. (jg) H.C. MacKnight, has been a regular member, but has completed his present tour of duty. All of them are Naval Advanced Training Unit Instructors with home base at N.A.S., Corpus Christi, Texas. Everyone is an expert pilot, but as a Naval Aviator that is mandatory anyway before you can wear those coveted gold wings.

The type of flying that the Blue Angels do is a natural outgrowth of what is required in Naval Aviation. You can say it’s nip and tuck, breath-taking flying. You can also say it spilled some good opposition all over the ocean around Midway, the Coral Sea, and a lot of other Pacific water.

Pin point bombing—the real Navy dive bombing attack—where a group of 30 to 50 airplanes must quickly get on a target and away in section or division formation dictates precise formation flying. It was found long ago by the Navy that that was the way to really score hits for a kill without being openly vulnerable as single planes. Deflection shooting—pointing the nose of your airplane at the enemy and firing from any angle means allowing the appropriate lead for the bullets—like shooting skeet. Do this in formations of two or four without collision or shooting up a team-mate and you are an aerial artist. When a hundred airplanes (like homing pigeons) gather around their carrier to land, the time factor is essential. Fuel may be low. Precision flying, formation and individual, is necessary, and you must fly your airplane close to its stalling speed—with a velvet touch, when you come up the groove to land aboard. Accurate navigation over an endless expanse of sea is another Naval pilot chore. Teamwork is the byword.

The Naval pilot must be versed in all of these things and many more to near perfection—or he isn’t a Naval pilot. The Blue Angels are the Navy’s forerunning examples.

Since 1946 more than 11,000,000 people have watched the Blue Angels perform in nearly every state in the union. Audiences run from 20,000 to 2,000,000 spectators, and at Idlewild Airport in 1948 the team gave 10 exhibition shows in 10 consecutive days! “The eyes of Brooklyn were upon us” chant the Blue Angels in chorus.

Peculiarly enough, the Blue Angels were never intended as a public show unit. Organized strictly to present Naval precision flying, formation work, and accurate timing in the air to Naval Air Stations, Naval Cadets, and Midshipmen, the team was immediately caught up in a swirl of public requests. The boys added a few “hot pilot” acrobatics on their own. They were so good the admirals overlooked it. In addition to Naval Air Stations and Training Stations, which get the priority booking, 40 to 50 civilian requests a month are received by the Navy—pleas for exhibitions by the Blue Angels. As many of these additional requests are fulfilled as can be fitted into remaining days in the month. Only about one-tenth can be accepted, and the team is dated up nearly a year in advance. The current average is five shows in as many places every 30 days.

Even if you aren’t an aviator you can appreciate the magnitude of such a road billing. A total personnel complement of eight officers and ten enlisted men are required on every trip. Itineraries, performances, and aircraft maintenance are carefully planned and painstakingly organized. While operating as the formation team of Blue Angels, not a man has been hurt nor a crash occurred. Before fully organized as a team, a pilot crashed during a performance in Jacksonville, attempting a double vertical roll toward the ground. They say he just plain “didn’t have enough sky left to pull out.” Since then not a plane has been scratched or a person hurt. The men who service the airplanes are as particular with the tightening of each nut and bolt as though each plane were going into actual combat.

The pilots remark almost in one voice, “Our respect and appreciation is for the service crew. They never let us down. We never worry about the airplanes.”

Five F8F-1 Grumman Bearcats, an SNJ two-place trainer, and an R4D Douglas Transport must negotiate foul weather, the maintenance problems of keeping everything flying, and show up at each location in order to rest and service the airplanes for the next day’s appearance. From one show place to the next might be 2,000 miles, and to date the Blue Angels have disappointed no one.

If you weren’t fortunate enough to be included in the 2,000,000 Coney Islanders who formed a single audience back in June of 1948, or any of the average 50,000 spectators who witness each of the Blue Angels’ civilian shows, there is an aerial treat in store for you when your time comes. I have been flying as a Naval Aviator and test pilot for 15 years, nearly every hour in the air being spent in single seat fighter type aircraft, such as the Blue Angels employ. Despite this opportunity to be “in on the know” as it were, I finally had brought it home while observing this “team” that some of the precision formation tactics like these really saved our respective necks in the last war in the air.

This air show, except for the added frills, is mostly a display of the precise flying and the daring vitally required in combat. Long before December 7, 1941, the Navy had eliminated the “individualist” from its doctrines. To live and conquer in the air meant teamwork, just as it has for centuries on the sea in ships. As a Naval Aviator you are trained, almost from your first solo flight, to fly as a member of a team.

The Blue Angels have brought the whole stepped up routine to the home town folks at ground level where the public and future Naval Aviators can see it. That is why a simulated attack on an enemy fighter plane has been included in the repertoire. The “enemy” plane, painted a bright yellow color (and flown by one of the five Blue Angels) is attacked by the team in two plane formation. It immediately gives the audience an authentic picture of Naval planes teaming up to coordinate their attacks, each plane projecting his teammate at all times. (Ask any combat pilot you know what it meant to get caught all alone during a dog fight when everyone was playing for keeps!)

After a running fight the enemy plane is shot down in flames, disappearing over the horizon as the “pilot” bails out. This particular event is as thrilling to watch as it is real to any observer who may be in the vicinity. And it is not without its humorous side, too.

“How many times we have had to apologize to fire truck, ambulance, and personnel who chased the ‘burning’ plane over the horizon, or searched frantically for the pilot whom they saw bail out is uncountable,” Comdr. Bill Dean was saying. Comdr. Dean is the Officer in Charge of the Blue Angels’ operations at all times, whose headquarters is the Advanced Training Unit Staff at Corpus Christi.

“We make sure to broadcast and to fill the newspapers before each show with the fact that the smoking plane and bailing out pilot are simulated,” Comdr. Dean said. “We explain that the plane is rigged for smoking and that the pilot bailing out is an 80 pound dummy. We pass out paper notices to the crowd that the airplane does not actually crash but swoops low across the horizon and circles back to the field out of sight. But the eager well-meaning rescuers simply scramble to be first to the scene.”

I sympathize with those spectators who didn’t get the word. My first sight of this act presented a quick desire to go help a brother pilot.

Once at a show at Idlewild Airport in New York, the rear seat man riding in the yellow plane hurled the dummy out on signal from the pilot. The crowd below gasped, watched the parachute blossom and the smoking plane disappear over the horizon. The pilot started to turn and pushed his rudder. Something felt funny.

“What seems to be wrong with the rudder controls back there?” he asked the rear seat man.

“Rudder control hell,” the rear seat man exclaimed with intentional concern, “there ain’t no rudder!” He had thrown the dummy a bit too straight and it broke the whole rudder off. The pilot radioed the tower trying not to arouse undue alarm.

“Look, Ma, no tail but ready to land.” He set the airplane down so normally on the long runway that not one of the spectators knew of the difficulty.

It would take a large sized book to relate the personal exploits of the individuals who make up the Blue Angel Exhibition Team. They are transferred periodically—rotated in duty like everyone else in the Navy. Hollywood movie magnates could find few plots with such stark, effective drama as their personal histories provide. For instance, take the leader, Lt. Comdr. “Dusty” Rhodes. After receiving his wings in 1942, Ensign Rhodes reported in at San Diego and was assigned to Fighting Squadron Ten. This squadron was nicknamed “The Grim Reapers” and was commander by Lt. Comdr. Flateley, now one of the Navy’s war heroes and a Captain. The squadron was to be based aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise.

At Santa Cruz, shortly thereafter, in the thick of the battle while operating as a member of the Grim Reapers, Rhodes’ plane was shot full of holes and started down smoking. Just before the burning F4F Wildcat hit the water, he managed to get free and bail out. Surviving the drop, he immediately tried to inflate his lift raft, only to find that it, too, was full of bullet holes. After a great deal of difficulty he managed to get the raft patched up while struggling to keep his head above water. Then he clambered in, exhausted. It wasn’t until about 30 hours later that he was picked up by a Japanese destroyer which kept him on board for six days. From the destroyer he was transferred to the Island of Truk and later sent to the infamous OFUNA questioning camp near Yokohama in Japan in November, 1942. In July of 1943, he was transferred to the prisoner of war camp in Yokohama and he was still at Niigata at the end of the war.

Lt. Comdr. Rhodes always leads the team, but will tell you this at once. “My job is comparatively easy. The other three flying formation on me have the tough assignments of staying in there every second and making the show real good.”

Actually, the five aviators change places frequently so that each of them can fly any position in the formation or do the trick for that day in the SNJ and get “shot down.” That is one of the things that makes them great. Each knows what the other has to do and how he is going to do it. He knows how much throttle to edge on or ease off at the start of each loop, roll, Immelman and how to make it the easiest for the other three. Each pilot can match his split second timing with the others for he knows what they are going to do from their respective positions.

You may be absolutely certain of one thing. Doing a good job of holding close formation position with a combat airplane that weighs about six tons, has 2250 horsepower in its engine, and operates at speeds of more than 450 m.p.h., is exacting and difficult. Nor does the leader have it easy.

Flying formation, like shooting skeet or running the high hurdles, takes practice. You have to lead accurately and pull smoothly, so to speak. As on the hurdles you figuratively time distances and paces, and skim over the tops closely to get the maximum in coordination and minimum in time. Oddly enough, the average layman unexposed to the rigors of good formation flying will watch the four planes function as one and will know that what he saw was good. He, in most cases, cannot explain why, nor what makes such flight operation difficult and strenuous. If you happen to be one of those, the next time you observe some fancy formation flying that isn’t simply straight and level you might evaluate it with the following in mind.

For the duration of any such exhibition, every pilot in every cockpit but the leader’s, stares with eagle eyes at the airplane ahead and a little off to one side of him. In close formation you look at nothing else. Your undivided attention is mandatory for every second you stay in that formation. Coordination of your hands, arms, legs, brain, fingers, wrist, et al., determine how well you fly formation. To every man but the leader, sky, ground and clouds remain but a jumbled backdrop beyond that airplane you’re watching. At times you will lose all track of the attitude of your airplane in relation to ground or sky. That is your leader’s job. Your left hand is gripping the throttle in such a way that you can finally adjust the power to the slightest variation required. Or you can firmly but smoothly open it wide for full power or close it. You are constantly moving that throttle. It is one of the prime factors in keeping your airplane, in a three dimensional medium, in exactly the same position with respect to the other airplane. If he banks and turns, you add more power immediately to stay with him as you go around the outside of the circle. If your airplane is on the inside of the turn, you ease back on the throttle to keep from overrunning.  That’s your left hand.

Every second while you’re flying together in close maneuvering formation, your right hand is gently, but firmly pressing the stick, forward, left slightly, aft—aft more, right, center, forward, neutral. It’s somewhat like stirring a huge pot of soup with a long ladle. Your feet and muscles are simultaneously called upon to correspond with pressures against the rudder bar. Left hand, right hand, feet—they all function as one while your eyes search hawk-like the airplane next to you. You think hard and at times do a little sweating.

If you jerk, or handle any control roughly, your airplane skids, drops below, behind or outside of the one location near the next plane that you want to maintain. Of course, in the worst instant, your airplane’s wing, prop or tail can collide with another plane.

As soon as you are familiar with the man leading, how he reacts, how he maneuvers his machine; when you know, having flown in his position in the formation, what he must do and plans to do—then you can readily anticipate. You can plan seconds ahead of what’s coming.

When it all works so smoothly, and seemingly effortlessly, that your wing tip stays 20 feet out, your prop 15 aft, your cockpit nearly level with your leader’s—and as a single unit you bank your airplane with three others, turn, roll, dive, climb, as though strapped together; then you are a Blue Angel.

And one thing more. Doing this in a smooth, clear sky is demanding of any pilot. In rough air and clouds you can strain every nerve and muscle to new heights of swearing exasperation. The “team” has had plenty of that. Let Lt. Frank A. Graham of Madison, Florida, announcer and commentator for the team, tell of the show at Toledo, Ohio, last year:

“It was 4 December, 1948, and a 75 mile wind was blowing straight across the field when the show started. It didn’t let up one knot. Peculiarly enough, with this high wind there was an overcast at 2500 feet. It was just plain stinking weather.

“When Lt. Heagerty got down on the ground and crawled out of his airplane after our air show, he had a swollen muscle in his left forearm that stuck out like a little softball. The air was so rough his arm just knotted up from gripping the throttle so hard while trying to maintain a good formation.”

They would have called this show off, but nearly 20,000 spectators braved the weather conditions to see the Blue Angels operate. Every time the team pulled up into their formation loops and Immelmans at this show, they would disappear into the 2500 foot overcast. The next time the crowd saw them they would be diving down again—still in perfect formation! All of the boys admit it was quite interesting, flying formation on instruments in rough air. Comdr. Dean says that the show was as well done as any other and that the team didn’t miss a number.

“Of course,” Lt. Graham says, “we added something special to this exhibition. Lt. Roth flew the SNJ backwards across the field, and the crowd really ogled at that one.” (The SNJ can fly slower than 75 miles per hour, and Lt. Roth just let the wind move him backwards down across the length of the runway.)

The other members of the Blue Angels, as Comdr. Rhodes emphasizes, have tough assignments. They must execute with him the maneuvers he sets up for the air show in the smoothest formation possible. Each one of them must certainly be accredited a major share in making the Blue Angels the world’s best flight exhibition team. Their past records speak for themselves.

The officers who form the Blue Angel Exhibition Team hold this honor only for a limited time, about two years. You might say their present positions are among the most sought after in Naval flying, and there are literally hundreds of Naval Aviators who are hopeful of getting the call. When any one of the team gets orders to change duty, the sixth man steps in full time while another pilot already chosen starts “scrimmaging” on the team. It takes about three or four months of intensive practice and hard flying for that man to be qualified, know the others and their particular flying habits, and actively join the show.

Any spare time that remains to pilots on the team is used in instructing advanced Naval students at the fields that surround Corpus Christi’s large Naval Air Station. They fly F8F Grumman Bearcat single seat fighters in this work also, and the airplane is well suited for such formation and low altitude maneuvering.

The F8F airplane was ordered by the Navy soon after the war began when every fighter pilot combating Jap Zeros wanted lots of maneuverability and a high rate of climb at low altitudes. Maximum performance was desired at 20,000 feet and below at that stage of the war. This airplane was designed to give just that while accepting some compromise in higher altitude performance and range. The Bearcat is small, wieldy, powerful and fast. It has climbed 10,000 feet in 100 seconds—a rate of climb of over a mile a minute. Its top speed is above 450 m.p.h. and it is so small you literally “wrap it around you” on entering the cockpit.

The five F8F airplanes which the team takes to each show (only four perform, one being on hand as a spare) are straight combat type airplanes with no extras added. Only the guns and water injection equipment have been removed. The eight crewmen who take care of upkeep and servicing of the planes “are just as important as we pilots in the air.” The crew is a fine bunch and conscientious almost to a fault. Spare parts go along with them in the R4D Douglas transport and the five fighters are wiped down and checked before every take-off. It’s a pretty “natty” crew, too, with their clean blue coveralls and gold insignia.

The Navy’s Blue Angel Flight Exhibition Team will continue to exist as long as the Navy and public demand continues. They are planning to obtain new jet fighter airplanes to use sometime in the near future since the feeling is that they should keep well up-to-date equipment-wise. Their new jets will be Navy type, either the Chance Vought F6U-1 Pirate or possibly the Grumman F9F-2 Panther. Both are in production. Along with its jet engine the Pirate utilizes an afterburner which is simply an additional tail pipe fitted to the jet engine in which more fuel is burned for higher velocity jet exhaust (thus, more thrust).

The Blue Angels today are sometimes “spelled off” by three admirals who proudly don flight gear, borrow three jet airplanes (McDonnell FH-1s) and whiz through the sky to the joy of the spectators—and to the three admirals themselves. No one expects to see an Admiral of the Navy step out of a sleek, hot looking, jet fighter. The “Gray Angels,” as they are called, get together for the most part when the mood and opportunity present.

Rear Admiral Apollo Soucek (still flying actively), Rear Admiral E.A. Cruise, and Rear Admiral D.V. Gallery, as the Gray Angels, followed the “youngsters” (Blue Angels) across the field at Idlewood a short time ago and were on the scheduled program.

The Blue Angels are the tops in the world today. Their demonstrations of precision flying, rather than the death defying routine, is liked by every crowd. Their exposé of the skill expected of every Naval pilot working on a “team,” rather than individual prowess, typifies the undaunted leader “attacking 60” with a group of four. The pilots who make up this team are not a fixed group of individuals permanently assigned to flight exhibition duty. Since their organization there have been 16 Naval Aviators who have flown temporarily in one of the five Blue Angel planes. Hundreds of pilots hopeful for their chance are waiting for a call, and you can’t blame them.

 

After earning his Navy wings at Pensacola in 1935, Mr. Guyton served with bombing squadrons on the Lexington and on the Saratoga in the late 1930’s. He began work with United Aircraft Corporation in 1940 as a test pilot, subsequently did test work on many Navy fighting planes, and became Chief Pilot, Military Liaison, in 1945. He is the author of two books and numerous articles on aviation.

 

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