The Blue Angels Are In the Wings

Next month, the Blue Angels will wow spectators and inspire the next generation of service members and aviators at the Vero Beach Air Show

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The North American AT-6 “Texans” of the Titan Aerobatic Team
The North American AT-6 “Texans” of the Titan Aerobatic Team. Photography by Joey Calmes

For the fourth time since 2014, the U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron—the Blue Angels—will be in town. In their F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets, they will take off and land at Vero Beach Regional Airport, zoom across our skies, and thrill us with their spectacular choreographed maneuvers as they headline the 2024 Vero Beach Air Show May 3–5.

We all know the heart-pounding excitement we get from watching these masterful pilots roar over us in diamond formation, only 18 inches apart wing to wing. That is, if we can bear to keep our eyes open to watch. 

Six Blue Angel pilots carry out stunning precision maneuvers in their F_A-18 jets
Six Blue Angel pilots carry out stunning precision maneuvers in their F/A-18 jets.

Yet these military aviators also claim to get a special thrill out of their high-flying aerobatics. According to Blue Angel Lieutenant Connor O’Donnell, who will serve as narrator for this year’s demonstration, it’s knowing that they bring smiles and often inspiration to the children watching them.

“The flying is amazing,” O’Donnell admits, “but each of us was once that kid who saw something like this, and it inspired us to do something with our lives. That’s what sticks with us.”  

Lt. Cdr. Brian Vaught, Jeff Devlin, Lt. Connor O’Donnell
Lt. Cdr. Brian Vaught, Jeff Devlin, Lt. Connor O’Donnell.

While in Vero Beach, the pilots, dressed in their blue flight suits, will visit several schools and have a chance to connect with the students. Children, along with veterans, are also important to the organizers of the Vero Beach Air Show. Again this year, the show will benefit the Veterans Council of Indian River County as well as two service clubs that focus on children: the Exchange Club of Indian River and the Exchange Club of Vero Beach.

Jeff Devlin, the Vero Beach Air Show’s liaison with the “Blues,” has been interacting with the team for many months, making sure the local organizers are following all of the required protocols to sponsor the elite flyers. Devlin is particularly qualified for this role because the retired U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, like the Blue Angels, flew F/A-18 jets. In his 22-year career, he landed the jet on aircraft carriers, as do all the Blue Angels, and he flew the F/A-18 on two combat tours in Bosnia. Devlin also deployed in combat tours to Iraq and Afghanistan. 

“Fat Albert,” a C-130 Hercules, with its all-Marine crew of 7, is the Blue Angels’ support aircraft, transporting equipment and personnel 1
“Fat Albert,” a C-130 Hercules, with its all-Marine crew of 7, is the Blue Angels’ support aircraft, transporting equipment and personnel.

He explains the role of the F/A-18 jet in the military. “The F/A-18 is unique in that it is a multi-role fighter, designed to both fight and attack, carrying ordnance to deliver to a target and missiles for aerial engagement. And it lands on a carrier.”

Landing on a carrier and flying demonstrations in a Blue Angels show are both intense experiences, says O’Donnell. “Each requires 100 percent of our focus. Our priority for both landing on a carrier and flying in the show is safety.”

Lead solo pilot Lt. Cdr. Griffin Stangel
Lead solo pilot Lt. Cdr. Griffin Stangel.

Devlin adds, “Naval aviators make hundreds of carrier landings. It is one of the hardest things you can do in an airplane. And it certainly conveys the Blue Angels’ piloting abilities, professionalism, and their ability to handle stress.”

Six F/A-18s will fly in next month’s demonstration. Devlin explains their positions on the team and their roles in the show. “In the diamond, the front jet is No. 1, referred to as ‘Boss’ or the commanding officer. No. 2 is the right wing, No. 3 is the left wing, and No. 4 is the slot pilot behind No. 1. Then you have the solos. No. 5 is lead solo and No. 6 is opposing solo. Blue Angel No. 7 is always the show narrator.” 

A “Para-Commando” from the Special Operations Com- mand parachute team jumps with the U.S. flag
A “Para-Commando” from the Special Operations Command parachute team jumps with the U.S. flag.

Devlin notes that this year the pilot flying in position No. 4 will be Lieutenant Commander Amanda Lee, the first woman Blue Angel F/A-18 pilot.

The team’s transport aircraft, known affectionately as “Fat Albert,” is a perennial favorite in the show. The C-130 Hercules aircraft has an all–Marine Corps crew.

The Blue Angel pilots prepare to board their F_A-18s, with crew members standing by
The Blue Angel pilots prepare to board their F/A-18s, with crew members standing by.

During showtime the public can watch the Blue Angels from a number of vantage points. However, Devlin says the “best seat in the house” will be inside the gates at the show center facing the runway and the sky above. He has a few tips to increase a spectator’s enjoyment and appreciation of the flying.

“Be very aware of the entire show, because it is all coordinated and choreographed. When you have your eyes on the diamond, be aware of where the solos are because they are coming, too, and are fun to watch! Sometimes they will surprise you on purpose when they come over low and fast. You have to be an active watcher.”  

A U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo aircraft
A U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo aircraft.

Pilots in the diamond will showcase precision flying in a tight formation just inches apart. While the solos also display precision, their maneuvers are meant to focus on the high performance of the jet. “The solo Blue Angels fly faster and pull as many g’s [gravitational forces] as they can,” Devlin says.

The solos usually fly between 400 and 500 miles per hour and can reach speeds of 600 mph in a show. And when doing a low pass, they are only 50 feet off the ground. The Blues in the diamond usually fly in the 350 to 400 mph range.

“A new maneuver to watch in this year’s show is the diamond coming in slow, back in power, at the crowd,” Devlin says. “And then the jets will do a slow role together and fly out as their afterburners get to the crowd. It will be very loud.” 

Navy and Marine Corps aviators are eligible to become Blue Angels, and they go through a rigorous application process for a two- or three-year stint on the team. “It is a real honor to be chosen and to be able to train as a team and fly demonstrations,” O’Donnell says. “And what we are most proud of is that we represent the Navy and Marine Corps, the men and women, our brothers and sisters in arms, who serve around the world. That’s our job as Blue Angels.”

Skip Stewart
Skip Stewart.

So, no matter where you view the Blue Angels on May 4 and 5, be prepared to be dazzled and impressed at what these military pilots can do, and be proud of what they represent to our country.

Be prepared for one more thing: look around you and see if there is a child watching—a child seeing something exciting and inspiring. Who knows? You might be watching a future Blue Angel. 

The Geico Skytypers perform at a previous Vero Beach Air Show
The Geico Skytypers perform at a previous Vero Beach Air Show.

2024 Vero Beach Air Show

May 3–5
Friday 6–8:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday 9 a.m.–4 p.m.

Scheduled Performers:

  • U.S. Navy Blue Angels
  • A-10C Thunderbolt Demonstration Team
  • Titan Aerobatic Team
  • Rob Holland Aerosports
  • Kevin Coleman
  • Matt Younkin
  • Bob Carlton
  • Skip Stewart
  • Bill Culbertson, flying his MiG-17F

 

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