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Blue Angels thrilling ambassadors of flight

by Chuck Cordill, staff writer

Windward O‘ahu on a beautiful October afternoon, a place of peaceful tranquility where God used every shade of green in the book. The magnificent Ko‘olau Mountains loom in the background, an idyllic, verdant frame for the picturesque solitude. Suddenly, four F/A-18 Hornets, flying in a tight diamond formation explode over the emerald summits, screaming banshees swooping from the heavens, in an act both terrifying, yet beautiful.


The spectacle makes one marvel at the visual marriage of nature and technology, a union of earth and sky, man pushing the limits of his environment. The Blue Angels are here.

The Blue Angels, an elite flight squadron of U.S. Navy and Marine pilots, highlighted the 2004 Blues on the Bay Air Show held Oct. 9 and 10 at Marine Corp Base Hawai‘i. An estimated 30,000 people went to the Kane‘ohe over the weekend to see Hawai‘i’s first full air show in nearly 20 years.

An estimated 15 million people see the angels in action every year. In addition, the team visits about 50,000 people at schools and hospitals and makes other group appearances.

Air shows like these are conducted to raise public awareness of the role of the military in our society, as a recruiting tool for men and women who might have ambitions for service, and as a goodwill extension to the community. And, oh yeah, they’re a lot of fun to watch. But it’s not just entertainment; it’s more of a highlight film.

U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Craig Olson, who flies the number six plane and “opposing solo” on the team said, “Every maneuver the Blue Angels execute is one that all Navy and Marine Corps pilots must master as part of their training, the same things in combat situations too,” he added.

Standing by his blue and gold F/A-18 aircraft, (official Navy colors, just like his Blue Angel flight suit) the pilot and his machine made quite a contrast to the green summits of the windward side. Olson explained that one of the team’s roles was to let the public see what the faceless thousands of military pilots do every day. “We add some theatrics and condense it a bit, but these are basically the aeronautical skills used by the brave men and women that fly on a daily basis to preserve our freedom.”

In the air, Olson’s radio call sign is “Merlin,” a take on his family name and that of former NFL great and current FTD Florist’s spokesman, Merlin Olson. Commander Olson admits his call sign is somewhat generic. Other tags are more fitting to the true character of the pilots.

“ We had a guy who blew out both tires on landing,” said Olson. “We nicknamed him “Bam-Bam.”

Olson and his fellow squad members are probably used to being referred to as elite aviators, the “best of the best.” And it’s true, in a sense.

Since the Blue Angels began in 1946, more than 216 demonstration pilots have served. That’s a miniscule number compared to the tens of thousands who have flown for their country or supported its aviators. But team members don’t consider themselves any better than their peers. Rather, the pilots look at themselves as ambassadors and representative’s of their fleet counterparts.

“ I consider it an honor to represent the hundreds of other pilots, as well as those out there sleeping on ships or digging foxholes,” said Olson. “We represent the U.S. military to the rest of the world. We show the world what kind of great men and women serve in our armed forces. We’re the lucky ones. There are other pilots out there who are just as good.”

So what kind of person flies some of the most combat effective and sophisticated aircraft on the globe? Olson recommends a strong background in math, science, and physics. A potential pilot must have excellent vision and be in great physical shape.

Being a military pilot puts an individual under a lot of physical and mental stress, Olson admits. But if you love roller coaster rides and such, or are just into, “pulling G’s,” a cockpit could be waiting in your future.

“ My part of the team requires a lot of gravitational push.” Olson said.

He explains that at ground level, an individual is at “one G.” But when flying an 18 million aircraft capable of reaching speeds of 1,400 mph, or just below Mach II, the G-Forces increase exponentially. During a typical show, pilots often fly at speeds near 700 mph, just under the speed of sound.

“ At times, we can pull 7.5 G’s, which means, if you weigh 100 pounds, your body weighs 750 pounds in flight.”

Because of the precise movements needed during a demonstration, the pilots don’t wear pressure suits. Instead, they memorize the maneuvers by heart, and learn to tense their muscles at the right moments.

The job obviously offers more hazards than the standard, “9 to 5,” but no one on the team has a death wish. Even when two planes seem to be flying directly at each other, it only seems that way. The aviators are always in communication with each other, in the air and on the ground.

But yes, it is close.

“ What we do can be dangerous,” said Olson. “We fly aircraft at extremely high speeds, very close to one another. There is no margin for error. But we have a contract with each other. These maneuvers are well rehearsed, and we know which way the other pilot will go. It’s safe, because we practice, practice, practice.”

During the media “meet and greet” before their performance, Olson recalled being asked by a little boy “what was the best part about being a Blue Angel?”

Olson smiled, tapped his hand against his F/A 18 Hornet, and said, “I told that little boy I have the best job in the world.”



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