Touring with the Blue Angels was supposed to give Ernie Christensen a respite between deployments as a combat pilot in Vietnam.
But Christensen, a retired rear admiral who went on to command the Navy’s Top Gun fighter school, said flying with the Blue Angels was sometimes more demanding than combat.
“In your last 30 seconds coming aboard a carrier, you have levels of concentration, and in combat there are those few moments of stark terror when you have intense concentration, but with the Blues you have intense concentration the entire time,” he said.
Christensen and dozens of other former Blue Angels will gather for a Nov. 10-11 reunion and air show to mark the 60th anniversary of the Navy’s elite aerial-demonstration team at its home base of Pensacola Naval Air Station.
In the danger zone
“Each air show is as close as you can come to the environment around an aircraft carrier. The environment around an aircraft carrier is unforgiving — you cannot make errors because there is a chance somebody will get hurt,” said retired Capt. Gil Rud, who commanded the Blue Angels from 1986 to 1988 and oversaw the team’s transition from the A-4 Skyhawk to the F/A-18 Hornet.
Aside from the mental challenge, the job is physically taxing as well. Blue Angels don’t wear the traditional G-suits that most jet pilots use to avoid blacking out during maneuvers. The suits inflate around the lower body to keep blood in the brain, which could cause a pilot to bump the control stick — a potentially deadly move when flying inches from other planes. Instead, Blue Angels manage G-forces by tensing their abdominal muscles.
And Blue Angels pilots learn to fly with a 40-pound tension spring attached to their flight stick to give them tighter control over their aircraft.
“It will tire your forearm out, especially after three training sorties a day. Sometimes you kind of have to peel your fingers off the stick,” said Cmdr. Stephen Foley, the team’s current lead pilot.
Altogether, 223 aviators have served on the team since it was formed by Adm. Chester Nimitz in 1946.
Raleigh “Dusty” Rhodes, 88, joined the Blue Angels in their second year, after returning from three years as a Japanese prisoner of war. The aerobatic flying was therapeutic, he said.
“I was so busy flying that I didn’t have time to think about the war,” he said.
Looking back on the last 60 years, “gives you a real sense of pride,” Rhodes said. “It is the greatest type of flying and they are the greatest team in the world.”
Rhodes’ team began the diamond barrel roll, where four jets perform a loop in a tight diamond formation, becoming inverted at the top. “They still do it today,” he said.
“For its time, it was pretty spectacular and considered to be dangerous by a lot of people, but for us, it was what we did.”
A big hit
The Blue Angels were an instant success, creating traffic jams whenever they performed, he said.
“We were a hit, oh yes, gee whiz, we were,” Rhodes said.
The team’s popularity “waxed and waned” throughout the Vietnam years, said Christensen, who flew for the team from 1969 to 1970.
“It was vitally necessary then that we were able to show the military to people who wouldn’t have otherwise seen it,” he said.
Tom Bennington, the maintenance chief for the Blue Angels from 1968 to 1971, recalled protests outside some air shows.
“Relatively speaking, that happened just a few times,” he said. “Every place we went we were treated with the utmost respect.”
‘Top Gun’ made naval aviation cool
The team’s popularity spiked again with the release of the Tom Cruise movie “Top Gun” in 1986. The next year, Van Halen featured a montage of Blue Angel flying in the video for the song “Dreams.”
“With ’Top Gun’ — what a great movie, not in content with the story line, but because it really showed naval aviation. It was terrific in bringing people to air shows,” Rud said.
The Blue Angels inspire fierce loyalty from some civilians. When Mario and Peggy DeLuca retired to Pensacola, they chose to live beneath the team’s flight path so they could watch the planes from their yard.
“Some of the neighbors complain about the noise, but that is the reason we bought our home,” said Peggy DeLuca, 55.
Their devotion has spanned decades. When the two were high school sweethearts, Mario, now 56, showed Peggy he was serious by giving her a model Blue Angels airplane.
Fans span generations
He enlisted in the Navy after high school and became an electronics specialist, and the couple took their seven children to air shows whenever the team performed at bases where Mario was stationed.
When Mario was stationed in San Diego, the couple drove an hour every Saturday to watch the team perform at their winter practice base in El Centro, Calif., and Peggy made ham sandwiches for the pilots to eat during their post-practice debriefings.
A former Blue Angel is godfather to their daughter, and their oldest son, a Philadelphia police officer, has his own collection of hundreds of signed Blue Angels photographs and programs.
Marine Maj. Matthew Shortal, a member of this year’s squadron, recalled seeing the Blue Angels fly for the first time as a child at a Chicago air show in the late 1970s.
“They sat me in a jet and took a photograph, and my mom wrote on the back ’Matty didn’t want to leave’,” he said.
While the planes and pilots have changed over the last six decades, the Blue Angels’ mission hasn’t, he said.
“Our mission is to enhance the Navy and Marine Corps recruiting. That worked on me and it worked on the rest of these guys,” Shortal said, standing next to his No. 4 jet after a recent practice.
“We were left with some pretty big shoes to fill. Hopefully we will do the same.”