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Sunday, June 24, 2012

Seeing Blue

Last week's post had me seeing black after my encounter with Team Oracle and their high G-force maneuvers. This week though, I’m seeing nothing but blue; the Blue Angels that is. It’s summer, and for me that means it’s airshow season. Whenever the Blue Angels come to town, I make it a point to go out and see them perform, and this year was no exception. On Saturday June 9th, I headed out to the MN Air Spectacular to see them perform in Mankato, MN and also to check out Sean D. Tucker’s performance.

I love all things aviation-related, but jets have always been my favorite. The sheer power and speed they possess is amazing to me and the ear-splitting roar of a turbojet with full afterburner is something that always gets my heart racing. As if jets weren’t amazing enough to me already, the things the Blue Angels do with their slightly modified F/A-18s is astonishing. I can’t even imagine what it must be like to fly as close to another jet as they do (at times just 18 inches apart)! I’ve always wondered, what happens if they sneeze that close?

There is no way I can describe the mind-blowing maneuvers they do during a performance other than to point you to a fascinating page maintained by the Blue Angels themselves. There you can see what it looks like from both inside and outside the cockpit as they perform each of their maneuvers. Go ahead and take a look now before reading further and make sure to play around with the various camera angles available: Inside the Demo

Back? I have seen the Blue Angels multiple times now, and I always tell myself that I’ll be ready for the one maneuver they don’t show you on the demo page; the sneak pass. Every single time I know it is coming and every single time it still startles the hell out of me as a lone Blue Angels aircraft will sneak up from behind the crowd while our attention is diverted to a formation of the other aircraft in front of us.  It doesn’t just stroll on by either. It comes screaming along at nearly 700mph (just under Mach 1, the speed of sound) and can descend as low as 50ft. Check out the video below of a pilot on approach for the sneak pass a number of years ago:

In my stupidity, and focus on taking pictures, I never thought for a moment to record a video like that. However, I did get a number of great shots that I’m pretty proud of. Take a look at the gallery below, or head directly over to my gallery page at and check it out there as well.

Okay, so let’s talk some tech and interesting facts about the Blue Angels.

  • They currently have 16 jets: four single seat F/A-18 A models, nine single seat F/A-18 C models, one 2-seat F/A-18 B and two 2-seat F/A-18 D models (six are used during the performance).
  • The nose cannon is removed and replaced with a smoke tank.
  • An additional inverted fuel pump is added to extend inverted flying time.
  • A high gloss coat of paint is added to reduce drag and improve performance.
  • Their pilots don’t use G-suits that normally inflate air bladders to compensate for blood draining from the head during high G-force maneuvers. Instead, they contract their muscles to force blood back to their brain. They eschew the suits as they rest their arms on their legs for support during maneuvers and the air bladders of a G-suit would conflict with this.
  • The smoke is produced by pumping biodegradable, paraffin-based oil directly into the exhaust nozzles of the aircraft where the oil is instantly vaporized into smoke.
  • The jets have a range of about 1000 nautical miles (which can be extended with aerial refueling and external fuel tanks).
  • All jets can be converted back to combat status in 72 hours.
  • Top speed is just under Mach 2 (twice the speed of sound, 1400mph).
  • Maximum climb rate is 30,000ft per minute, allowing a jet to reach its combat ceiling of 50,000ft in under two minutes (airliners cruise at about 35,000-40,000ft).
  • The jets weigh 24,000lbs empty.
  • The base cost of an F/A-18 is $21 million USD.
  • Members of the team are active duty military and volunteer for a 3-4 year tour with the Blue Angels. They receive no extra pay during their tour and return to active duty after their tour.

Find out more facts on the Blue Angels’ FAQ page.

As I mentioned in my Team Oracle post, I also had the amazing opportunity to visit the Team Oracle chalet and hold the banner pole for Sean as he rolled inverted over the runway and cut a ribbon stretched between two sets of the poles. I thought that the roar of jets was loud, but nothing could have prepared me for both the roar of the engine and the rush of being that close to an aircraft moving so fast. I wasn’t sacred at all, except for the moment when a Team Oracle member reminded us to hold the poles steady and not to let them drop as the results of failure could be “catastrophic.”

My reward for holding the pole was a memory I’ll never forget and the rare pin on the left below:

Overall, I had an amazing time at the show and would strongly urge anyone to go check out the Blue Angels if they ever stop by a city near you. I do have a message though to any of the organizers of the MN Air Spectacular that might read this: Access to views of the runway should not be limited to the privileged few that have access to a chalet. The spectators are too cordoned off into an area that is too small. The show grounds should stretch along the length of the runway (as they do at AirVenture in OshKosh) to allow anyone with the foresight to arrive early a great view of the action (this is coming from the perspective of an aviation photography enthusiast). I was lucky enough to have access to a chalet, but would have been furious if I hadn’t.

Have you got any cool airshow stories? Let us know in the comments below.

Update-Check out my book of the event: