PENSACOLA, Fla. — As the sunshine and blue sky lay above the warm waves on Pensacola Beach, a pair of high performance jets soar high over the northern gulf waters in an aerobatic display which captures the attention of the sunbathers below.
The twin U.S. Navy jets quickly break away in a planned maneuver and begin to soar higher into the cloudless sky. Suddenly, the jets ignite a white smoke trail which begins to trace their flight path of twin circles.
The United States Navy’s elite Flight Demonstration Squadron is known to the public as the Blue Angels, and it is the team’s blue and gold jets which are a familiar sight and sound along the sugar sand beaches of the northern Gulf Coast just a few miles from their home at the Naval Air Station Pensacola.
The team’s public demonstration flights are the Navy’s most popular recruiting tool attracting interested young adults into a career with the military. One of those young adults became a pilot currently flying with the Angels.
For many on Pensacola Beach, the sight of the unexpected air show above is in reality only a low level practice flight by two of the six Blue Angels.
A typical week may find all six Blue Angels in flight as they practice flying wing tip to wing tip, just eighteen inches apart; and perfecting a stunning performance which has two of the jets speed toward each other before each jet breaks into a left and right hand 180-degree turn.
This year, however, the Blue Angels’ F/A-18 Hornet jets were ordered to stay home. Their practice hours limited to only eleven hours a month.
2013 marked a year of major budget cuts in the U.S. military, cuts which grounded the team from performing at any of their planned air shows during their annual March to November season.
For the first time in sixty years, the Blue Angels were not allowed to perform at any of the planned thirty-five airshows across North America.
This aerospace journalist soared with Angels pilot Lt. Mark Tedrow in 2012 in Angel 7 jet, a two seater F/A-18D Hornet, and experienced nearly every maneuver these incredible pilots endure during an air show performance.
This year marks Tedrow’s first year as Angel 6, one of two solos performing fast paced, highly intense flight demonstrations along with Angel 5.
As the aerobatic pair take center stage over an airshow runway, Angels 1, 2, 3 and 4 are typically lining up in a formation to soar high above as 5 and 6 finish.
As Lt. Tedrow and I stood on the flight line at the Blue Angels home base this week, we began to discuss his training this season and what inspired him to join this elite flight squadron.
Charles Atkeison: Lt. Tedrow, take us into the cockpit with you and explain what it’s like to soar with your team.
Lt. Mark Tedrow: “It’s really hard to describe for people who have not done it before. Luckily, you have so you know what the feelings and sensations are like.
It’s pretty incredible being part of the solo routine for the Blue Angels, number five and number six because unlike the one thru four pilots, we demonstrate the maximum performance capabilities of the FA-18. We’re the ones that wow the crowd with some of the amazing maneuvers. We fly our jets at just below the speed of sound, and pull between 7 and 8 G’s during the demonstration. It’s hard to describe to the person who has never felt G-forces before, but actually they’re pretty painful but good at the same time because you know you’re max performing the aircraft and it’s definitely a crowd pleaser.
It’s incredible to go through what we go through.”
Atkeison: With the Angels grounded due to the sequester, how do you continue to practice and stay prepared for a hoped 2014 season?
Lt. Tedrow: “We’ve been flying locally here (Pensacola) since we got shutdown. We fly two to three times a week and we do basic maneuvers. We have a local working area out over the (Gulf) water that we go and practice some of the airshow maneuvers that we do, so that’s the way we stay proficient as we’re waiting to hear about the 2014 season.
Are we flying as much as we normally would if we were doing a season this year? No. Are we proficient to do a demo tomorrow? No. But, we defiantly are keeping our skills sharp so that we will be able to fly a demo in 2014. The knowledge is there. All we have to do is sharpen our skill set with a bunch of practicing before we pick-up and fly during the 2014 season.”
Atkeison: Blue Angel 1 is your “Boss” and is flown by commander Thomas Frosch. Run through with me a few of his speech techniques he uses to keep your team’s mental edge prepared.
Lt. Tedrow: “I would not want to be in his shoes especially this season. He has done a phenomenal job, and I do not know how everyday he comes to work. He’s so optimistic. And, that is what he has passed on to us.
Throughout the weeks and the months we kinda hear different things, different stories, from ‘Hey, we’re gonna have a 2014 season’ or ‘Hey, we’re gonna be flying in the Fall.’ It’s back and forth, up and down, we get different information, but throughout the entire process, he has been nothing but optimistic about what we’re going to be doing in the future and the mission of this team in 2014.
The Boss always is optimistic, ‘Hey, we’re still the Blue Angels… we have a mission to accomplish and it’s still looking good for 2014″. So, he’s been great throughout, and without him, I don’t know what we would’ve done.”
Atkeison: O.K., let’s back up a few years… you grew up outside of Pittsburgh. What lead you into a career with the U.S. Navy and later, the Blue Angels?
Lt. Tedrow: “Growing up in Pittsburgh, we didn’t have much of a Navy presence, and I didn’t have many family members that were in the military. In that area, sports are a big deal – especially high school football – so I grew up playing a lot of football games. In high school, I was lucky enough to be recruited by United States Naval Academy.
It kinda sparked my interest. I showed up to the Naval Academy and I started playing football there, and the first year I was there the Blue Angels performed at graduation and I had never seen them before. I said, ‘Wow, that is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in my life. I’d love to do that one day’.
I went thru the four years at the academy. I was lucky enough, I selected naval aviation, went through flight school and selected jets. I did a few combat deployments to Afghanistan and worked my way through the fleet. I was lucky enough to get picked up, so here I am living that dream that I had since I was eighteen years old, and I’m super lucky to be here, and I’m honored to be a part of the team.”
Atkeison: So what’s it like to perform a carrier landing? What’s the sensation versus maybe an Angels flight?
Lt. Tedrow: “It’s a lot different. What sets naval aviators apart from the rest of the aviators throughout the world is the ability to land on aircraft carriers and ships. It’s one of the unique skill sets we bring to aviation, it’s one of the hardest things that we do. So to learn it is a lot of pressure, it’s a lot of stress. It’s very hard briefs and debriefs to get to the point where you’re ready to land on the aircraft carrier.
I’ll tell you first hand, the first time I landed on the aircraft carrier was in one of those jets right there, a T-45, and It was the most terrifying experience of my life. You’re coming around the corner and all you see is this ship. Aircraft carriers are huge, but from the sky at 500 to 800 feet, they look tiny, they look like a postage stamp. You’re coming around the corner in the landing pattern thinking to yourself, ‘There’s no way I’m gonna land this thing’.
To land is the most abrupt stop and landing you can ever image going from 140 m.p.h. to 0 m.p.h. in about two seconds, so that’s pretty incredible. And the take-off is even more incredible to go from 0 m.p.h. to 140 m.p.h. in a about a second and a half is pretty phenomenal as well. I think I screamed the first time I got launched from the carrier in a T-45 ’cause they’re so little and light. It’s one of the hardest things we do.
I’m lucky to be a part of naval aviation.”
As it stands for now, Lt. Tedrow and his Blues team are due to travel out to their winter base at the Naval Air Facility in El Centro, California, the third week of January for two months of intense training.
(Charles Atkeison reports on aerospace, science and technology. Follow his updates via Twitter @AbsolutSpaceGuy.)