Lesson #1: Be Thankful
During debriefs, at the end of each pilot's description of how that hop went for him, he says, "Glad to be here." It doesn't matter whether he has flown a good demo or has made mistakes on several of the maneuvers—he still says, "Glad to be here." The reason for this team custom is because no matter how bad a show you flew, no matter who called you names in the crowd, it is a privilege to be on the Blue Angels team and represent the Navy. It reminded us that many naval aviators would love to have been sitting in our seats. When the day in, day out, grinding routine caused us to lose touch with why we were there, "Glad to be here" was a gentle reminder to every person on the team that we were very fortunate.
To be a commissioned officer in the Navy or Marine Corps is an honor and a privilege. I joined the Navy in 1984 and served as an enlisted man for almost three years. I always dreamed of becoming a naval officer, and I am thankful for the opportunity I have to serve with and lead men and women in whatever missions the Navy asks me to do. We must never forget that privilege. Our commissions come with a price—long hours, family separations, etc.—but there are many men and women who would jump at the chance to be in our shoes.
One of the most interesting aspects of my tour with the Blue Angels was meeting dignitaries, politicians, and successful professionals from all walks of life. These people had it all-power, money, success-yet almost every one of them said to me that if they could have done one thing, they would have liked to fly fighters and land on the decks of aircraft carriers. What a revelation. Naval aviation, indeed, naval service in any community, is an honorable and noble profession. Be thankful.
Lesson #2: Admit Mistakes
Another important lesson I learned has to do with ego. Most naval aviators are type-A, can-do personalities. Generally, this stands us in good stead, but such a go-go, achieve-achieve nature also has a weak spot. As a whole, we do not like to admit mistakes to one another. Too many times the immediate reaction to a critical comment from a senior pilot is defensive—every type of excuse you could imagine. Early in my first tour as an aviator I found myself and others falling into this trap.
When I arrived to the team in September 1994, however, I found a very different and refreshing philosophy at the debriefs. Despite their healthy egos, these men all came clean on every faux pas that occurred on their flights.
I first realized this after flying a backseat sortie with Lieutenant Commander Doug "Dino" Thompson, a senior leader and seasoned veteran who had stayed on the team a third season as slot pilot. As we lifted off for the loop on takeoff, I was in awe of his aviation skills. He was talking to me the whole time he was making radio calls and maneuvering the aircraft. Although he was very relaxed, in his voice I could hear the level of intensity that was needed to do this job. I was completely mesmerized.
The interesting thing is that Dino was the first man to admit mistakes. In one postflight debrief he noted that he had not armed his ejection seat before flying the demo. I was dumbfounded. Here was this guy flying in a single-seat aircraft who had admitted a huge mistake. He had made this mistake before only God himself, but he came clean nonetheless. It made a lasting impression on me.
This honesty was prevalent throughout the team. Learning from each other's mistakes made us better pilots. Coming clean every day helped us build a strong bond; we trusted each other with our lives. It improved our performance as a team. It also made us better people.
Lesson #3: Always Strive to Do Your Personal Best
There is a difference between accomplishment and competition. As a junior officer, I felt like I was in competition with my fellow J.O.’s. It was not bad; it was just that I constantly compared my performance with that of others. I also got caught up in the competition between squadrons. It was easy to talk poorly of our sister squadron because it made us feel better about ourselves. After joining the Blue Angels, I soon learned that my paradigm was all wrong.
When I arrived in Pensacola it was apparent that the focus was to make the team the best it could be. Each moment of the flight demonstration—from the march to the aircraft to the walk back, and of course the flying in between—was videotaped for review afterward. During the debrief we painstakingly went over every maneuver, trying to figure out how to make it the best that we could. The only way to accomplish this was for each of us to concentrate on our personal performance.
To compare yourself to others takes you down a dead end road. There always will be someone who performs some task better than you and someone who performs it worse. If you concentrate on your own personal performance, however, and measure it against your own baseline and standards, you can monitor and make improvements in yourself.
Lesson #4: Teamwork
The whole culture of the Blue Angels organization revolves around the concept of team. In fact, during the application process I learned that macho, self-centered, he-man types need not apply. There were, of course, plenty of healthy egos, but the goals of the team were so well ingrained that all decision making was done with the team in mind.
During squadron meetings, every officer had an equal vote. The rationale was that with 18 good minds collaborating, looking at a situation from slightly different angles, someone was bound to come up with the right answer. The Boss, just like any commanding officer, had a 51% vote and veto authority, but he rarely exercised it. Because any committee occasionally can get bogged down because of the sheer number of people involved, some decisions were made off line. But even those used the team theory as their framework.
Great leaders do not want personal loyalty as the number one priority. That takes away from the synergy of the group. Instead, they want loyalty to the goals of the team, whatever they may be, and loyalty to the team itself. This allows each individual to use his or her creative skills and feel a part of the group. Every decision we made was with the team in mind. It worked like magic.
Lesson #5: Teaching and Passing the Baton
As leaders, part of our responsibility is to teach our subordinates. Passing the baton to others who will follow you is another privilege that can and should be extremely rewarding. It certainly was for me while I was with the Blue Angels.
None of the new officers have any say in where they are going to fly the next show season. I was in a hotel in Ft. Worth when I received a phone call from Lieutenant Commander Dave Stewart, the lead solo and operations officer. "Utah," he said, "how would you like to be a solo pilot?" I thought it might be a trick question. "I'd love to," I replied.
"Utah, you are now Blue Angel 66. When the season ends you will be Blue Angel 6, the opposing solo." I was thrilled and scared at the same time. I wondered how I was ever going to do this.
We started flying following the Thanksgiving break. Lieutenant Commander Rick "Timber" Young was the lead solo, the operations officer, and my teacher. His goal was to make me the best opposing solo that I could be—and he was teaching a rock. I must have attempted 200 inverted roll-ins before I completed one where my wings were level on the horizon. This was just a basic maneuver. From there we went on to much more complex maneuvers that required hours and hours of practice to perform competently. Timber was with me every step of the way. He didn't yell or scream. He taught in a gentle manner that gave me the confidence to push myself and continually lower the limbo stick.
By the end of the 1995 season, it was time for Timber to hand the baton to me and let me have the privilege of teaching the new opposing solo, Lieutenant Ryan "Doc" Scholl. Passing the baton to Doc was a joy. He worked diligently, kept his mouth closed and ears open, and soaked up all that I was able to bring to the table. I learned many lessons from him as well. It was a partnership of peers.
Doc and I reached all of our goals except one. The tuck over roll was the most difficult for us to perform and we never flew the perfect one.
That would have been the end of my Blue Angels experience had not the new opposing solo injured himself and been unable to fly for the first few weeks of the 1997 season. I came back to the team as Number 6 for the first two air shows.
It was great to get the chance to see the student be the teacher. Doc taught me many new techniques that helped us have the tightest solo program that we were capable of doing. At the first air show of the season in El Centro, California, I could tell that the hop was going to be our best effort ever. When we sat down later to watch the video debrief, the elusive tuck over roll that had plagued us for so long was the last solo maneuver to be played. As we watched it the whole room smiled. It took us two plus years, but we had accomplished our elusive goal: the maneuver was perfect. I had passed the baton to Doc and he ended up passing it back to me. That day was the culmination of all of the lessons that I learned while being a member of the Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron.
I went back to the F/A-18 training squadron for a few months, carrier qualified, and now am working as the operations officer for the VFA-136 Knighthawks. On board the John C. Stennis (CVN-74), we have been flying missions in the Arabian Gulf in support of Operation Southern Watch over Iraq. Have I used my Blue Angel lessons in my new job? Absolutely. I am fortunate that the men in my squadron share the same ideals and goals. From our commanding officer on down, we are trying to be the best squadron that we can be.
Lieutenant Commander Provo flew with the Blue Angels from 1994 to 1997. He is operations officer for VFA-136 at NAS Oceana, Virginia.