They’re the rock stars of the military, the glamorous face of the Navy’s recruitment efforts, and arguably the most celebrated flight demonstration team in the world. They’re the Blue Angels — more elite than the Navy SEALs, more precise than a brain surgeon, and as close-knit as any Special Forces unit. And a former member of the blue flight suit brigade, Commander Shaun “Linus” Swartz, recently sat down with Foxtrot Alpha to give a fascinating insider’s account of what it’s like to live, eat, travel, and fly with the US Navy Flight Demonstration Team.
Commander Swartz began his Naval “career” the same as millions of other children of the ‘80s — enamored with Top Gun, the most effective military recruiting tool since Uncle Sam first wagged his finger.
Read: Fly in the cockpit of the Blue Angels
From that point on, Swartz knew he wanted to be a fighter pilot (bad vision would later relegate him to Naval Flight Officer, aka “Goose”, but I digress). And just like Maverick, the star of Top Gun, Swartz found himself behind the joystick of the F-14 Tomcat, the workhorse air superiority fighter of the ‘80s and ‘90s.
“We were the best, period. Everyone on the boat wanted to be a Tomcat guy (or so we believed, and professed),” he said. “We were having the time of our lives. We flew harder and faster, we had better camaraderie, we laughed more, we had better skits, and certainly without question we were more popular with the women.”
So yeah, pretty much exactly like Maverick.
Swartz wanted more of a traditional college experience than the service academies could provide, so he took a free ride to Stanford courtesy of Naval ROTC. And after receiving his commission and graduating flight school in Pensacola, Florida, Swartz later deployed to Afghanistan.
The young officer flew 33 Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) missions — 6 of which he dropped a total of 12 bombs (all 500lb class Guided Bomb Units, or GBUs) — and while he always wanted to become a pilot, he applied to the Blue Angels on a lark.
We can’t all win the lottery, right?
After “rushing” the prestigious US Navy Flight Demonstration Team (the fraternity allusions wouldn’t end there), Swartz went before an admissions board that sounds like a cross between a Senate Judiciary Committee and the initiation rites of the Skull and Bones.
“The Candidate comes into the ready room and all 16 Blue Angels officers are in there,” Swartz said. “Each Blue Angel asks the candidate one question, which can be anything. It’s … a good chance to see how the candidate reacts to all sorts of questions — very akin to the media interviews this candidate will have to perform week in and week out should they be awarded a coveted slot on the team….”
And each new Blue Angel must receive a unanimous 16-0 decision. With a proud, 70-year history and 260 million satisfied customers (one hopes for the “satisfied” part, anyway), the Blue Angels want to be sure that each “new hire” is the right candidate to represent the USN and USMC for 2 years in the public eye.
The Blue Angels are rock stars in the public eye, admired by young and old alike, a role model and inspiration to many. But their daily grind isn’t quite so glamorous. There’s perks aplenty – free tickets to sporting events, dinners at fine restaurants, and lodging in nice hotels instead of “sleeping in a 6-man on the boat and eating chicken in the Dirty Shirt Wardroom.”
“The warriors on the front end are preparing to go into battle, potentially kill people, protect our troops on the ground and possibly get shot at …. followed by a night trap (landing aboard the carrier at night). The Blues flight, while dangerous, high pressure, and high stress, lasts 45 min. A typical mission off the boat “in country” lasts 6-8 hours,” Swartz said.
But the Blue Angels present a unique set of challenges. Instead of a 6-9 month consecutive deployment, the Blues deploy in “four-day spurts” and they’re on the road 280 days a year. And unlike nearly any flight squadron in the world, the US Navy Flight Demonstration Team demands absolute perfection (a must when you’re flying a few feet apart).
The Blue Angels expect self-accountability. While in uniform, the squadron members must follow the lead of the “Boss” (Flight Leader) — if he’s not wearing sunglasses, they must do the same. Failure to do so, or, for example, showing up unshaven in public, forgetting to iron and tuck in their shirt, or wearing open-toed shoes (for men) costs them $5, and they’re expected to self-report.
Overall, it’s a fascinating insider’s account of one the world’s most elite flight demonstration teams. Check out the complete interview at Foxtrot Alpha: http://foxtrotalpha.jalopnik.com/confessions-of-a-us-navy-blue-angel-1689568343
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Filed Under: Aerospace + defense