The Blue Angels--the Navy's demonstration team, the guys behind those six shiny blue fighter jets that fly in formation at air shows and do heart-stopping loop-de-loops at 500 miles an hour--have a peculiar shape to their year.
They spend the winter training in the big, empty skies of the California desert, down near Mexico. That's not just the six pilots, by the way, but the entire squadron that decamps to El Centro to perfect its teamwork: 16 officers and over 100 enlisted men and women, who maintain the planes, plan the shows, and perform a thousand other essential functions.
Then from March into November they're on the road, performing almost every weekend. Wherever they go, they visit schools and hospitals as well as flying for the public some 60 times all over the country. Their mission--the purpose for which we taxpayers support them--is recruitment.
In mid-summer the pilots add to this routine the process of selecting three new pilots (and several other officers). It's the Blues themselves who interview the eight or ten finalists, then agree which three will succeed the senior three of them. In September, the new guys start shadowing the team, following them to air shows, observing before they ever put on the blue flight suit to actually perform.
The last show of the season is at the team's home base in Pensacola. And that night there's a party at a club downtown. Former Blues come back for the occasion, and families and close friends are invited. There's a cash bar, a buffet dinner, then a simple ceremony. The commander of the team--who flies the lead jet--introduces his teammates, with their wives in the case of married members. One by one, they join him in the spotlight on a tiny stage. After applause, they go sit down, and the commander introduces the team for the coming year, made up half of old guys, half of new.
At the party two years ago, when my son Tom was one of the new guys, we were still delirious with the excitement of his having been selected. He and we were outsiders being inducted into a special world.
After the party, my husband and I went to our hotel, but the celebration continued back at the house Tom was sharing with two other single new guys, Kevin and Russ. When the festivities wound down, we learned later, Kevin disappeared upstairs. He came down resplendent in his sharp blue flight suit. Tom went upstairs and changed into his blue flight suit too. Then Russ came down--in full Elvis regalia.
Before we knew it, Christmas had come and gone, and the Blues were heading out to El Centro. Each winter, the new guys have to learn the moves, and build up enough strength in their right arm to pull against 40 pounds of pressure on the control stick, through shows that last three quarters of an hour. They also have to master the physical techniques that allow them to pull Gs without wearing the usual pressure suit, too bulky for their precision flying.
Once last year's season began, we got to see the team fly twice, at Andrews Air Force Base and on Nantucket, on a clear, bright day with the sun glinting off the jets and the sea.
Tom's second winter at El Centro, he was the training officer. This time the commander was new, so the senior guys taught their boss. During the 2007 season we watched the Blues perform for the Naval Academy's graduation, then again in Brunswick, Maine, as well as in the finale in Pensacola just the other day. It was Tom's last show before, as a friend put it, "hanging up his halo."
Another friend who's shared the vicarious thrill of Tom's career exclaimed, "It's like being in the NFL!" Well, sort of--without the money and without the personal celebrity, and with the military ethic of sacrifice. Blues get the same pay they would in any squadron--and they get two extra years tacked onto their commitment to the Navy for the privilege of serving.
The team dedicated that final performance to their beloved brother Kevin Davis, killed in a crash during a show in South Carolina last spring. They ended the demo with the starkly moving "missing man" formation. As the six-plane delta flies slowly overhead, one jet breaks away and disappears straight up into the sky.
At night, at the party downtown, talking once again with Tom's wonderful teammates and friends, and with Kevin's parents and brothers whom we first met two years ago, we realized that in a sense we too had become old timers, part of the Blues' extended family, connected for life.