Flipping upside down at 500 miles per hour is just another weekend activity for members of the Patriots Jet Team.
The former fighter pilots and current commercial pilots who make up the only civilian-owned and operated aerobatic team in America will soar into San Francisco as part of this year’s Fleet Week celebration, which kicks off today and runs through Monday.
After retiring as a pilot for United Airlines, Randy “Howler” Howl, owner and president of the team, purchased the first Patriots demonstration aircraft in 1999 from an Air Force stockpile in Europe.
“My passion has always been formation aerobatics and I got the idea to start a team similar to the Blue Angels or Thunderbirds, but on the civilian side,” Howl said.
According to David Ringler, chief operations officer for the Patriots Jet Team, all the pilots and ground crew have regular jobs outside of being team members.
“We’re really just a family; no one’s paid and we’re all volunteers,” Ringler said. “We do our regular jobs during the week but on the weekends we fly these planes. Typically the pilots are former fighters and they just want to get their paws on something fast and fun to fly.”
Flying decommissioned MiG-17 and L-39 fighter jets, the Patriots Jet Team does maneuvers that even the infamous Navy Blue Angels can’t accomplish, including the “Tail Slide,” which involves flying vertically upward until running out of energy, then sliding backwards tail first, slowing to a speed of 50 knots, Howl said.
San Francisco’s Fleet Week is the last air show in which the Patriots Jet Team will be a four-ship demonstration team. With help from its sponsors, Fry’s Electronics and Hotwire Construction Company, the Patriots will become the first six-ship demonstration team owned and operated by civilians, Howl said.
Also in 2011, the currently for-profit organization will be converting into a nonprofit 501-3c foundation with the goal of promoting aviation careers to the youth of America, Howl said.
“As a child, I had a passion for aviation, but I didn’t know anybody in the aviation field that could give me guidance,” Howl said. “Once I broke through the outer shell, I met a lot of experienced aviators that helped me fulfill my dream and I want to do the same for those young, up-and-coming aviators that have their own dreams.”
Within the next 60 days, Howl said, the group will be breaking ground on a 35,000-square-foot educational facility and aviation museum at Byron Airport in Contra Costa County, where the Patriots Jet Team is based.
Girl power flourishes aboard this boat
The Liberty PTF-26 Osprey may be a World War II gun boat, but even more notable is the fact it’s manned by a crew of all-female teenagers. The Sea Scout crew, based in Sacramento and Rio Vista, comprises nine 15-year-old girls. They will showcase their historic boat throughout Fleet Week at Pier 45 and during the Parade of Ships on
Sea Scouting began in 1912 as part of the Boy Scouts, but began letting girls participate in 1972, said Jim West, captain of the PTF-26.
“None of the girls had good boats to work on, so that became my mission,” West said. “I wanted to get a big boat for girls to operate, and now the PTF-26 is the largest girls’ boat out there.”
The girls usually join the crew around age 12 or 13 and stay on until they graduate from high school, but often come back after college to help out with training.
Kalia “KK” Kaddoura, now 21, was a crew member from the age of 12 to 18 and is now an officer on the PTF-26.
While West, Kaddoura and other officers are present, the boat is fully operated by the Sea Scouts, who do everything from maintenance to driving during summer cruises.
According to Kaddoura, the crew participates in three co-ed national competitions during the spring, where members compete in a variety of events including knot-tying, rope climbing, charting and navigation quizzes.
Year-round, the girls put on fundraisers for yacht clubs, and they also hold work parties several times a month to repair and make improvements on the boat.
“We love the boat. It’s basically our second home,” Kaddoura said. “It’s a great way to learn boating. Everyone knows how to steer and operate the engines. It’s great to see how independent the girls are.”
— Sarah Haughey
Q&A with Maj. Chris Collins
The 35-year-old native of Darien, Conn., joined the Marine Corps in 1997 and became part of the Blue Angels in 2008, where he now flies as the left-wing pilot.
Did you always want to be a pilot? Since I was probably 8 years old, I wanted to fly fighter jets off air-craft carriers. At age 12, I started flying and mowed lawns to pay for one hour of flying a week. I always wanted to be in the Navy, and when I went to Norwich University, I decided to go into the Marine Corps.
When did you decide to be a Blue Angel? The first time I saw the Blue Angels fly was when I was in college and I thought it would be pretty cool to do. Once I had flown the requisite number of hours, I applied, and after three years I finally got picked to be on the team.
What does it take to be a Blue Angel? Before you can apply, you need to have a minimum of 1,250 jet hours, which takes on average about seven or eight years. Once you apply, you do a couple of air shows to get the briefs of the team and see how the demonstrations work. We don’t just hop in the jet and fly around for an hour. Lots of work goes into it, but what it really comes down to is personality.
What about the tricks? All the skill sets we use in the Blue Angels are things we were taught early in our careers in the Navy or Marine Corps, except that we fly lower and closer together. Everything is done with a lot more precision. When you join the Blue Angels, we don’t start flying 18 inches apart from each other; before the first air show we do 120 training flights.
Do you have a favorite trick? My favorite is the Double Farvel. I fly the No. 4 jet, so I go upside down 150 feet up in the air and hover upside down above the No. 3 jet. I like it because it’s the most challenging thing I have to do during the demonstration.
Would you call yourself a daredevil? No, we’re not just a bunch of cowboys going out there and doing crazy stuff. Everything we do is choreographed and calculated down to the second. It’s all safe, but aggressive at the same time.
Do you still get the same rush from flying? I do. The flying demonstration is fun, especially during a full show with all the loops and stuff. It’s equivalent to running three or four miles because it’s mentally and hugely physically demanding on the body.
What’s your favorite part about being a Blue Angel? When I first joined, I thought it was going to be the flying and meeting a bunch of cool people, but the most impressive is interacting with the Make-A-Wish Foundation kids. We met a girl in San Francisco who was so excited to be there taking photos with us. About two weeks later, we got a photo from her family of a casket with a picture of the Blue Angels on top of it; the girl had died a week after we met her. I’m just a normal person elected to do something extraordinary, and to know I have that kind of impact on someone’s life is the neatest part of the job.
If you could take off and go anywhere right now, where would you go? I would take a vacation with my wife because we haven’t had a honeymoon yet — maybe the Bahamas.
What’s next after the Blue Angels? When I get done flying, I want to go into the business world. I will always fly privately because I love it, but once I’m out of the Marine Corps, it will be tough to fly F-18s.
— Sarah Haughey
This year’s theme: Get prepared!
Fleet Week may have been soaring and sailing into The City for more than 30 years, but it’s the first time the annual event has a theme. Because San Francisco is no stranger to the reality of natural disasters like earthquakes, the inaugural Fleet Week theme is emergency preparedness. Throughout the day on Friday, hundreds of sailors and Marines will join local emergency responders, CERT (Community Emergency Preparedness Teams) and NERT (Neighborhood Emergency Response Teams), as well as city residents, and participate in emergency preparedness training programs. The San Francisco Fire Department will put on search-and-rescue training for Navy and Marine leaders. There will also be demonstrations of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief capabilities.
For the most up-to-date information, visit www.fleetweek.us
United States Navy Blue Angels Air Show
When: Thursday, 1 to 5 p.m.
Where: Viewing along the waterfront from Marina Green to Pier 39
Parade of Ships led by San Francisco fireboat Phoenix
When: Saturday, 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
Where: Under the Golden Gate Bridge
Ships: U.S. Navy vessels USS Pinckney, USS Curts, USS Champion, USS Pioneer, USS Chief, US Coast Guard Cutter Active; Canadian Naval vessels HMCS Whitehorse and the HMCS Brandon; the historic WWII Liberty Ship Jeremiah O’Brien and the Vietnam-era Liberty PTF-26
Meet and greet the Blue Angels pilots
When: Saturday, 7:15 to 7:45 p.m.
Where: Pier 39’s Entrance Plaza
When: Saturday-Sunday, 1 to 4 p.m., Blue Angels 3 to 4 p.m.
Where: Viewing along the waterfront from Marina Green to Pier 39
What: All Fleet Week ships open for tours
When: Sunday and Monday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Where: Pier 27, Piers 30-32 and Pier 35
Meet an astronaut at the ‘Navy in Space’ exhibit
When: Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Where: Fort Mason (Bldg. D, Fleet Room)
Tickets: Free, www.thewfoundation.org
Other activities: See items that have gone up, demos of space-related technologies and more
Liberty PTF-26 Osprey
What: Vietnam-era Fast Patrol 95-foot gun boat
When: Sunday-Monday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Where: Pier 45
HOW TO WATCH THE SHOW
The Patriots Jet Team will be flying along the waterfront Saturday and Sunday from 2 p.m. to 2:25 p.m.