Blue Angels the highlight of Fleet Week

Traveling 450 mph, the wing tips of the plane mere feet from another aircraft, a quarter-mile above an uneasy crowd, Blue Angels pilot Major Nate Miller waits for the signal for the next dramatic move. Then he hears it, crackling through his headset: “Ohhhhh-K!”

Precisely on the “kuh” sound of the word — not on the “oh” or the “ay” — Miller and his fellow pilots roll the planes in unison, appearing to almost brush against each other before shooting off in opposite directions. 

In fact, it’s a maneuver they’ve done thousands of times — including just an hour before, during the final preshow briefing. In almost ritualistic fashion, he and the other Angels pilots close their eyes. They visualize themselves up in the air, practice making calls and enter their inputs exactly the way they will later in the day.

Every October, nearly one million people flock to San Francisco’s waterfront or rooftops to watch the spectacular antics of the Blue Angels, the Navy’s flight demonstration team and the highlight of Fleet Week.

The team will take to San Francisco skies and begin practicing maneuvers Thursday. The team has a “template” of moves, but it creates special choreography for  each city. In San Francisco, some of that special choreography includes buzzing just a few dozen feet over Alcatraz’s cell house, flying through the Golden Gate Bridge and skirting around Coit Tower.

The Blue Angels are based in Pensacola, Fla., but spend 2½ months each year practicing their moves in El Centro and 36 weeks a year traveling to various cities for performances.

The first plane, a two-seater, arrived in San Francisco on Monday with an advance team. On Tuesday, the rest of the eight performing planes arrived, along with Fat Albert, the C-130 cargo plane that carries extra parts and some of the maintenance crew. A total of
75 people travel with the Blue Angels, helping to maintain the machines and handle the logistics of moving between cities so quickly.

The goal of the Blue Angels is to show Americans the military machines and recruit young people to join the Armed Forces. The recruitment goals were part of what motivated a San Francisco supervisor two years ago to consider a ban on fliers, a move backed by anti-war organizations but swiftly and successfully opposed by residents who demanded the Blue Angels remain.

Miller said his team harbors no resentment about the controversy and still loves coming to San Francisco, which garners the largest crowd of any of the 35 cities where the Angels perform.

“Freedom of speech is what America is all about, and it’s what our military defends,” he said. “No matter what people’s thoughts are on the war, they still get to see the precision of their military. Hopefully it makes them feel proud of America and feel proud of what their military does to protect their country.”

Exhibit showcases ex-seamen’s presence in U.S. space missions

Maybe it’s because Navy pilots are experts at landing planes on the pitching decks of aircraft carriers. It could be because they have test-piloted legions of new and not-always-trustworthy aircraft. Or, there’s just something adventuresome in the mettle of naval aviators that draws them to the job.

Whatever the reason, Navy pilots seem to make natural astronauts.

All but one of the seven Apollo missions to the moon were captained by former Navy pilots. One of the missions — Apollo 12, which was launched 40 years ago this November — was an all-Navy crew. To this day, a high proportion of astronauts are retired Navy test pilots, said Ken Winans, founder and president of the W Foundation.

The Navy’s presence in space and the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 and 12 missions will be the subjects of an exhibit at Fort Mason during this year’s Fleet Week. The free exhibit will be presented by the W Foundation, a nonprofit educational organization based in Novato that has devoted itself to collecting artifacts from the American, Soviet and Russian expeditions in space.

Two retired Navy pilots who became astronauts for NASA will be on hand to answer questions. Retired Capt. Daniel Bursch has traveled to space four times. Retired Capt. Bob Curbeam has been on three missions, the most recent in 2006. They have about 90 hours of space-walking between them, Winans said.

Visitors will also see a Gemini capsule, the parachute-tethered vessel that astronauts used to return to Earth during the early space missions. The space suit of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, will also be on display.

The exhibit will be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Fort Mason, with a brief break for the Blue Angels show. There will also be a small exhibit at the USS Hornet and at the Chabot Space and Science center in Oakland.

Winans said it’s not clear why so many astronauts came from the Navy. All were test pilots and had such versatile experience that they outscored competition from other branches of the military or from the civilian world.

This will be the second time Fort Mason has hosted the W Foundation’s exhibit. Last year, Winans said, the Blue Angels pilots went out of their way to come to the exhibit and meet the astronauts.

“It was great because those Blue Angels are some of the best pilots in the world, but they just could not wait to meet the astronauts,” he said.

Fleet Week lineup

The annual showcase begins Thursday and lasts through Tuesday.

Noon-5 p.m. Blue Angels survey flights

1-3 p.m. Air Show practice

3-4 p.m. Blue Angels practice

All day: No fare on the F-Line, provided by CVS/pharmacy

9 a.m.-5 p.m. Navy in Space Exhibit at Fort Mason

11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Parade of Fleet Week ships

12:30 p.m. Coast Guard rescue demonstration

1 p.m. Airship Ventures zeppelin demonstration

12:30-3 p.m. Air Show

3-4 p.m. Blue Angels

7-7:30 p.m. Blue Angels/Air Show autograph session, Pier 39

All day: No fare on the F-Line, provided by CVS/pharmacy

9 a.m.-5 p.m. Navy in Space exhibit at Fort Mason

11 a.m.-4 p.m. Ship tours

12:30-3 p.m. Italian Heritage Day Parade

12:30-3 p.m. Air Show

3-4 p.m. Blue Angels

1-6 p.m. Pier 39 Concert Series

7:15-7:45 p.m. Blue Angels autograph session, Pier 39

Monday and Tuesday
11 a.m.-4 p.m. Ship tours

11 a.m.-4 p.m. Pier 39 Concert Series

Fleet Week by the numbers

1,250 Minimum flight hours required to apply for a Blue Angels pilot position

0 Spare pilots — if the flight leader is ill, the show is canceled

29 Years Blue Angels have come to San Francisco

33 Average age of pilots

69 Air shows at 35 sites where Blue Angels perform each year

1,500 feet Minimum cloud ceiling for Blue Angels to perform

15,000 feet Highest maneuver height reached in a show

8,000 feet Minimum cloud ceiling for Blue Angels to perform the “high” show, which includes all maneuvers

50 feet Lowest maneuver height reached in a show, in the sneak pass

700 mph Highest speed

$21 million Cost of a single-seat F/A-18 Hornet fighter jet

15 million People nationwide who see the Blue Angels perform each year

1 million People who watch Bay Area Blue Angels shows — more than any other site

Source: Blue Angels

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