The Blue Angels are set to return home to Pensacola on Monday to kick off their 70th season of airshows. The team is set to fly over downtown Pensacola around 2:30 p.m. on Monday afternoon before landing at Sherman Field aboard Naval Air Station Pensacola.
For anyone who’s out of the loop, the Blue Angels are the U.S. Navy’s flight demonstration squadron, traveling to perform at dozens of airshows each year from their home base in Pensacola, the “Cradle of Naval Aviation.” Blue Angels pilots are highly trained to execute incredibly precise maneuvers that have been wowing crowds for decades.
In addition to serving as worldwide ambassadors for naval aviation, they’re just generally awesome.
It doesn’t get more #oldschoolcool than this. The Blue Angels were established in 1946 to “boost Navy morale, demonstrate naval air power, and maintain public interest in naval aviation.” The team worked out of several different facilities in its early years, until 1954, when the Blue Angels’ home base was moved to NAS Pensacola, where it’s remained ever since.
The Blue Angels have flown eight different planes over their 70-year history: the Grumman F6F Hellcat, Grumman F8F Bearcat, Grumman F9F Panther, Grumman F9F Cougar, Grumman F11F Tiger, McDonnell Douglas F-4J Phantom II, Douglas A-4F Skyhawk, and the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet. Above, Blue Angels pilots sit in their F11F Tigers on the flight line.
The Navy’s not the only branch of the military with a flight demonstration team. The Air Force has the Thunderbirds, and while they’re pretty good and all, everyone from Pensacola knows that the Blue Angels are better.
In the Blue Angels’ signature diamond formation, aircraft 1-4 fly closely together in unison. During diamond formation maneuvers, the Blues’ aircraft get as close as 18 inches apart. The F-4J Phantom II, pictured above, is the largest plane the team has flown.
Who remembers when Bert looked like this? The Blue Angels are supported by a Marine Corps C-130T Hercules lovingly nicknamed “Fat Albert.” Nowadays, Bert has the blue and yellow paint scheme that we know and love, but back in the day, he sported a more traditional livery, with only the Blue Angels script on the fuselage and the team insignia on the tail.
Most of us don’t go back this far, but before Fat Albert, there was Connie. The Blue Angels used a C-121J Constellation as their support aircraft for a couple of years in the late 1960s. Connie’s cool, for sure, but she’s no Fat Albert.
Aww, yeah. Those of us who grew up on the Gulf Coast know this scene: the Blues flying over the Pensacola Beach pier. The team’s annual airshow over Pensacola Beach draws hundreds of thousands of people to the island. Officials estimated that more that 277,000 people watched last year’s show from Pensacola Beach.
In this 1984 photo, four Blue Angels are executing a Double Farvel maneuver in their A-4F Skyhawk II aircraft. In the Double Farvel, the four jets are set in a diamond formation with the #1 and #4 jets inverted, flying just feet apart from one another.
Blue Angels pilots are selected from among the most elite pilots in the Navy and Marine Corps and train rigorously in pursuit of perfection. During winter training at NAF El Centro in California, pilots practice twice a day, six days a week. During the season, pilots practice on Tuesdays and Wednesdays here in Pensacola and again on Fridays at airshow destinations.
It’s all about the fans. Here’s U.S. Navy Lieutenant Keith Hoskins in 1999, signing an autograph for a lucky young man. Blue Angels pilots traditionally hang around after practices and airshow performances to meet fans and sign autographs. Hoskins, now a captain, is currently the commanding officer of NAS Pensacola.
Marine Corps aviator Capt. Katie Higgins joined the team in 2015, becoming the first female Blue Angels pilot. She flies Fat Albert, the team’s C-130 support aircraft, and she’s kind of awesome.
As cool as photos are, there’s nothing like being in the cockpit. Check out this insane 360° video taken from the #2 plane, flying in the slot, in which you can see real-time just how close these jets fly to one another.