They are one of the most iconic performance groups in existence, amazing millions yearly. Their shows feature seemingly super-human levels of precision. Now, one of them is going to tell you what it's like to don the blue flight suit as part of the elite of the elite, as a member of the US Navy Flight Demonstration Team, more commonly known as the Blue Angels.
Commander Shaun "Linus" Swartz has realized more dreams in his life than most of us ever will, and he did it the old fashion way, through really hard work. He was a graduate of Stanford University, a decorated and combat tested Naval Flight Officer who spent his time in F-14s and later F/A-18s and is now a team lead for the F-35 Joint Program Office, with many stops and accomplishments along the way. Yet Commander Swartz's most amazing accomplishment is to have been hand-selected to be a part of the world-famous Blue Angels.
Foxtrot Alpha had the pleasure to ask Commander Swartz anything we wanted, so we did. Our correspondence ranged in topics including the realities of getting selected for and living life on the road with the Blues Angels, the recent sexual harassment scandal that hammered the team, what it was like to go to war in the F-14 Tomcat after the events of 9-11, the strategy against ISIS, what the F-35 means for the future of Naval Aviation, and just about everything in between:
After already being part of one of the most competitive institutions in the world, the F-14 Tomcat community, at what point in time did you say to yourself "gee, I want to become part of an even more competitive institution, the Blue Angels?"
In 2004 I was lucky enough to be on the F-14 Demo Team (with Smokin' Joe) as part of my duties as an F-14 Replacement Air Group (RAG) Instructor at VF-101 "Grim Reapers" out of NAS Oceana. This clearly was the best possible job in the world for a 31 year old single dude (granted I had a serious girlfriend at the time, now my wife). During the week I flew in fighters teaching our next cadre of motivated "Studs" (short for Students) how to fight and employ the aircraft I had wanted to fly since I was a little kid. During the weekends I jumped in a jet with one of my best buds and we went to you name it city, USA, where we were treated like rock stars and got to fly the airplane like you weren't allowed to fly it anywhere else, ever, period (maybe unless you were under hostile fire).
One of the pilots on the 2004 Demo Team Anthony "Opie" Walley was rushing the Blues, so when we showed up at airshow sites he went off to do all the activities with the Blues – attend their briefs, show up at their social engagements, watch the airshow with other rushees etc. This left me hanging solo without my wingman (we all know the adage "Never leave your wingman!"), which put a cramp in my style come evening time. So, I decided, shoot, I'll put in an application too – not that I want the job – but it'll be cool to get a "peak behind the curtain", and give me something to do while I'm on the road.
I had never really considered being part of an organization where it was dominated by pilots, with only one Naval Flight Officer (NFO) on the staff – I had always assumed that as an NFO I would never get a fair shake come Fitness Report (FITREP) time, nor respected as an equally talented aviator. Regardless, I put my application in and started attending functions with Opie. We also had another NFO rushing the Team from VF-101 who had been rushing for 2-3 years, so he knew everyone already and knew the drill in general. He seemed a lock for the job. I was just happy to be there.
As I went to several events and started to meet the guys on the team, I quickly realized that some of my preconceptions were not surprisingly misconceptions, and that it wasn't just a bastion for the Single Anchor Master Race (Naval Aviators). I started to think that it might actually be pretty cool to be part of this tight knit group of professionals, who got to go from airshow to airshow each week, which I had already established was about the coolest thing in the world.
How I got into the Navy/flying world in the first place? Top Gun was my inspiration (corny but true). Ever since then (1986 I was 13), I wanted to be a fighter pilot. Of course I didn't distinguish the USAF from the USN at that time and assumed that if I wanted to be a fighter pilot I had to join the USAF – so that was my focus.
I did pretty well in high school and applied to the US Air Force Academy (USAFA) and the US Naval Academy (USNA) and both ROTC programs. I got accepted to USAFA. Two of my best friends in high school, one got accepted to USNA to play soccer and the other to West Point to play soccer. At that point we were all going to service academies. I went out to the USAFA prospective student weekend and spent the weekend on campus shadowing a student. To be blunt, it pretty much blew. It was not the college experience I was looking for, which was supposed to include fraternity life (my parents, uncle/aunts etc all had a rich Greek experience), and a major college athletic program with football games that attracted 80K people and national championships etc. BUT, I kept telling myself this was the path to becoming a Fighter Pilot.
Well, then I was accepted to Stanford, can't argue with the educational opportunities there, and major college athletics – Greek System, check – sunny CA, check….but how would we pay for that? Then I was awarded a USN ROTC scholarship and a USAF ROTC scholarship. Ok, options are good. Does Stanford have ROTC? Yes, cool. USAF offered me $10K/yr, USN offered me a full ride. But I can't fly in the Navy right? I mean they drive boats!
My mother, the college counselor that she was, called the USN ROTC unit and talked to someone about her son who wanted to fly, and convinced me to talk to a Lieutenant at the ROTC unit, who basically told me that if I maintained a 3.0 GPA I was almost guaranteed a flight slot if I wanted it. 3.0? I laughed at that, of course I could do that in my sleep (little did I know what Stanford Engineering would be like!!).
So one day about a week before I had to accept or decline all these various offers, I skipped school on a Friday (my first time skipping school in my life), went out to the local golf course and played 9 holes of golf, drinking a frosty beer beverage per hole (they got warmer each hole, funny), and decided I was going to Stanford via USN ROTC.
From there it was a 4 year effort to keep my grades high enough to be competitive for that flight slot I wanted so badly. It wasn't easy and graduating with a 2.8 I wasn't sure I had made the cut, but luckily things worked out and I had orders to report to Pensacola, FL for training as a Naval Flight Officer in January of 1997. As for being a pilot, my eyesight went south my junior year of college which put me out of the running for a pilot slot.
They say applying to become a Blue Angel is like rushing the best house on campus that also happens to be a fortune 500 corporation whose business is to put on the most marvelous road show on earth. What is the process like to become a Blue Angel?
The basic process is like a fraternity rush. After having just come from fraternity life, albeit 8 years earlier, I understood this game. The process objectives are clear and benefit both the organization and the rushee. For the organization: meet the candidates and find out if they are the type of men or women you want part of your organization (a basic set of qualification standards that have to be met are assumed). For the rushee: meet the men/women of the organization and figure out if that's an organization you want to be part of.
Blue Angel rushees (candidates is the official term) show up at shows the Blues are performing at during the rush period which lasts nominally April through June. Once there they basically shadow the Team – watch the flight brief, watch the show, show up at the Team social engagements. The rushee gets an idea what it's like to be a Blue, and the Team gets to know the individuals who are rushing, observe them in various social situations (peers, kids, elderly, handicapped, etc) to see if these folks would be a good addition to the team. Also, there is a chance for both sides to chat in informal settings with the blue suits off.
Around June of each year the team whittles nominally 75-90 candidates down to about 30. These include candidates for all officer positions (other than the Boss), not just flying positions. Remember the team is a very cohesive group. Doesn't matter if you are a pilot or Support Officer – one team. These 30 or so officers are invited down to Pensacola, the home of the Blue Angels, for "finalist week" in conjunction with the Pensacola Beach airshow in mid-July. During this week there are myriad activities – dinner with the team only, dinner with team and families, social beach party with team and families, strength test (for pilot candidates), the briefs/shows/debriefs, and the dreaded interview, along with other activities.
The interview is a 1 vs 16 interview. Candidate comes into the ready room and all 16 Blue Angels officers are in there. Each Blue Angel asks the candidate one question, which can be anything. I won't repeat any of the questions, but suffice it to say the goal of the interview from the team's perspective is to flush out anything that might make this candidate not a good choice to represent the USN and USMC for 2 years in the public eye. It's also 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.
The night after the last show of the weekend is over (I think it was that night), the candidates go home and the Blues stay in the ready room as long as it takes to vote on the next team. All new team members must receive a 16-0 vote. Not surprisingly this can take some time and typically goes well into the early hours of the morning. It can also get fairly contentious as deliberations continue and dudes get tired. But make no mistake, when a guy/girl gets the call that they made the team, it was by 16-0 vote.
In my case, I was invited down to finalist week and went down thinking all along no way am I getting this job, but this will be a cool experience I can tell my kids about. I was very loose, not stressed out about it at all. Remember this was not a goal I had set for myself a long time ago, unlike getting into flight school and flying fighters. I knew I wasn't going to get the job.
We did all the social stuff and I had a great time, getting to know the incredible guys on the 2004 team even better, and their families. Then I went to the interview, which I had taken the time to prepare for a little, just by thinking about some things that were important to me. I had what I thought was a pretty good interview and just had an overall positive vibe when it was all over. I remember getting home and telling my girlfriend at the time (now my wife), I think I just may get this job!
I know recently they have changed this process somewhat, specifically involving the "Big Navy" bureaucracy a little more in the selection process. I can't comment on if that is better or worse because I haven't seen it that way, only can say it is different. I think the way selections were made when I was there wasn't perfect, but it worked. It's tough to select the candidates you want to be on the road with for 280 days out of the year. You won't always get it right, but more often than not you will, and who best to make those selections than the folks living that reality. My closest friends in the world are the dudes from my fraternity at Stanford and the guys/gals from my 2006 BA Team. Why? Shared experiences, most good, some bad. Choose the people you want to be surrounded with and choose them carefully. That's what my fraternity did and that's what the BA's do as well.
What was it like when you got the call telling you that you had made the team?
I'll reveal a little secret. I had been given the "gouge" that when the Boss calls you to let you know if you made the team, if he puts you on speaker you're in, otherwise you're out. Of course I was nervous. Every candidate is given a 5 min window to call the Boss and find out if he or she made the team. I hacked (set) my watch about 10 times that day and was shaking as I dialed. I had already rehearsed what I would say whatever the outcome. If I made it I wanted to sound excited but not like an idiot screaming and jumping up and down like a school girl, likewise if I didn't make it I wanted to sound professional.
I placed the call and Boss Bartlett said "hold on a sec" and I heard that unmistakable click of being put on speaker. So I had an instant of prep for what the Boss was going to tell me. When a candidate makes the team the Blues have a special message for that candidate that they share in unison and gives no mistake about the fact that you made the team. Needless to say I was delivered that message, and gave my rehearsed response in appropriate "fighter guy" excited but reservedly cool manner. My first thought after hanging up the phone was "Holy S. I'm a f-ing Blue Angel". Then I called my girlfriend (wife).
Editor's note: I believe the term he is referring to on speaker is something akin to 'Welcome to the team asshole!'
Although the news that you have made the Blue Angels is huge, nothing really changes initially. I was consumed with the magnitude of all the "must-do's" to close up a job, get ready for a move, finish an airshow season, rent out my house in VA, find a house in Pensacola, and oh by the way, I had to go out to MCAS Miramar, CA for a month to get qualified in the F/A-18 Hornet. It was a busy 4 months.
We were supposed to be in Pensacola in November of 2004, and it just so happens as Katie and I started the drive down, Hurricane Ivan hit the Florida Panhandle pretty hard. Thankfully I hadn't closed on my house yet. We diverted to Tallahassee and holed up with one of my fraternity brothers there until the storm passed. The Blues had hurrevac'd all the jets to NAF El Centro I believe, so long story short, there were some initial challenges.
Once we all got into houses, power was restored, and all families were accounted for, us newbies as we were called, joined the Blues for the remainder of the show season ("Khaki Newbie" period, because the Newbies have to wear their Khaki uniform every day until the day they actually start to wear the blue suit. This occurs after the last airshow of the season). I don't recall the exact order but there was a New Orleans show, a trip to the west coast for Hawaii, Miramar and San Francisco, and then back east to Jacksonville, Key West and finally the Pensacola home show to wrap up the season. This is the period where newbies need to learn everything they can to be ready to take over the team after the last show. They need to be ready to step right in. For me that meant learning everything Blue Angel #8 does. As a result, I pretty much parked myself in Sweetpea's back pocket to take it all in.
Also, as a newbie, you are learning how to be a Blue Angel. One of the hardest parts as a Newbie is the uniformity of everything. We all match the Boss. If he has his jacket on, we all have our jackets on. If he takes his sunglasses off, we all take our sunglasses off. Discrepancies cost you $5. And it's the onus of the individual to recognize discrepancies. Blue Angel #4 (slot pilot) is never going to tell #6 (solo pilot) "hey dude you didn't have your sunglasses on, you owe $5." Rather it's #6's responsibility to realize "I didn't have my sunglasses on, I owe $5." This teaches personal responsibility/accountability. Good stuff. Anyway, there are lots of little decorum rules like that that take awhile to get used to.
Newbie period is also the time when we learn how the Blues do their visits to high schools every Friday, and we get a chance to practice that with a current team member. For some, getting up in front of an audience of everywhere between a classroom of kindergartners to a gym full of 1000 high school kids can be intimidating, and if nothing else require different approaches. And of course we needed to learn the Demo (the actual Blue Angels flight demonstration) and the role of each of the support officers. Really, you have to just understand what the Team is all about.
Perhaps most importantly however, Khaki Newbie time is a chance for the incoming newbie class to gel as a team, without the added responsibilities of actually wearing the blue suit. Yes, each newbie will be infused into the overarching team, but a cohesive group is critical, and will become even more critical once it's time to step into the airplane every day.
What was it like traveling around the globe on what is probably the world's most iconic, intense and expensive roadshow?
The travel is not as glorious as one would think. First off, it is a grueling schedule. Fun, yes, but grueling. For the most part the schedule is as follows:
- Wed AM: Early, #7 and his crew chief hop in the #7 jet and fly to wherever the weekly show is at. Once they arrive they have a ton of work to do. They brief the show committee when they arrive, making sure everything that is supposed to be in place is indeed in place. The crew chief organizes all the maintenance gear, gets all the rental cars ready for the team's arrival etc, and of course takes care of the #7 jet. #7 has 3 flights, where he takes up media or other VIPs capable of garnering "National Media Interest" for familiarization flights. Once the flights are complete and the jet is put to bed, #7 and the crew chief check on the hotel, get everyone's keys, check on the gym and make sure that is good to go, and generally speaking make sure everything is ready for the team's arrival the next day.
- Thurs: Early, Fat Albert, or 'Bert' as we call it, (the Blue Angels iconic USMC C-130) launches with all the support officers and all the enlisted maintenance crew and heads to the show location. Some time after Bert launches, Blue Angels #1-#6 launch in their jets, timed to arrive at the show site about an hour after Bert does. As Blue Angel #8, since my seat in the back of the #7 jet was occupied by the crew chief the day prior, I rode with the crew in Bert. This had its advantages and disadvantages. It was a great opportunity to bond with the enlisted crew and hear the scuttlebutt of gripes etc from the trenches. However, for an aviator accustomed to flying around in a fighter jet, Bert is slow, crowded, either too hot or too cold, and of course, Bert departed Pensacola at ungodly early hours in order to get somewhere an hour ahead of the jets while travelling at 350 kts instead of 500 kts.
Once Bert arrives, it's like an ant hill explodes. 100 people get off, unload all the gear, moving in all sorts of directions, each person with a job to do. It's really quite impressive. When the jets arrive, the team is ready, and essentially the show begins. Usually there is a meet and greet with the show site organizers, local prominent folks etc, and then the Officers are whisked away to the BA debrief spaces, which I will call the ready room.
We debrief the transit up to the show, and brief the next flight of the day, which is Circle and Arrivals (C&A). This is a critical flight, for this is where Blue Angles #1-6 figure out what they will use for visual checkpoints to be able to successfully execute the demo the rest of the week. The first C&A flight is 1-4 only (the Diamond). I won't go into specifics, but each pilot flies out from show center on the radials they need for the various maneuvers and at various mileage checkpoints (.5nm, 1.0nm, 1.5nm, 2.0nm etc) they pick up something prominent on the ground they can use for a visual reference, and they memorize those points.
For example, #2 may find a smokestack at 2.5nm on the 030deg radial. #4 may use a bridge at 1.0nm on a different radial. This flight takes an hour. As soon as the Diamond lands, the solos (#5-6) launch for the same thing, also flying for an hour. When the solos land, they hurry back to the ready room, where everyone briefs for a practice demo. Two hours after the Solos land from C&A, the Delta (#1-6) launches for the practice, where they fly the whole demo using the ground reference points everyone has just memorized to see how they work. This flight also lasts about an hour. So you can see for all the pilots, this is their 3rd flight of the day on Thursday, and for all the maintainers, they have been working pretty darn hard to make sure all the jets are good to go for all this flying. For me as #8, Thursdays were my big fly day. Since these are "practice" flights, they would flow the #7 jet (2-seater F/A-18B) into the lineup as either #2, #4, or #5 and I would get to fly C&A and usually the practice too. Great stuff, and a huge morale boost.
Thursdays are also media day. Somewhere in there, the Public Affairs Officer (PAO) has organized media interviews for some or all of the pilots. This usually takes place in front of the jets, usually after either the arrival flight or C&A. Once the practice was complete, all the officers reconvened in the ready room where the practice, which was taped, would be debriefed. These tape debriefs are long and tedious, but are the real secret behind the BA's success, as they afford the pilots an opportunity to see their mistakes so they can be fixed. By the time this is all over, it is usually around 6-7pm and it has been a busy 12 hour or more day. Off to the hotel to check-in, get dinner, work out, unwind, whatever.
- Fri: Friday is considered a practice day. Friday AM we have recruiting visits to local high schools. #2-8 would meet local recruiters at the hotel, go to local schools and meet with the kids. Usually back to the hotel by 1100, grab a quick lunch, then around 1200 you are meeting the caravan for the drive to the airfield. Caravan's were police escorted, not because the Blues are all high and mighty, but because we have a tight timeline to meet and the unknowns of a new town, airshow traffic etc are not conducive to staying on timeline.
Once we arrive at the airfield, it is to the ready room to brief and prepare for the practice flight. Usually on Fridays we have a guest rider in either the #4 or the #5 spot. These guests, unlike the members #7 flies on Wed, are usually Naval Aviators/NFOs that are stationed nearby. For example, maybe the base commander or a local squadron commanding officer. These flights are designed to add more awareness of what the Blues do from a brief/fly/debrief standpoint so these experiences can be shared with other aviators to enhance best practices in the fleet and/or to generate interest among our fleet guys to maybe consider rushing to be part of the team in the future.
Since most of the fleet doesn't interact with the Blues, there is a stigma out there that being a Blue is all rock star and partying. There is nothing further from the truth. The Blues are Naval Aviators like any other, merely chosen to represent all the other men and women in uniform, and there's a lot of hard work and serious flying that goes into it. It's not just sipping cocktails all day long. Anyway, these Friday guest riders are an attempt to help break down that stigma by interacting with our fleet brethren.
After the Friday practice flight, it's time to visit with the Make-a-Wish Foundation guests at the show, followed by the autograph line for 45 min or so, followed by taking pictures with "VIP" guests, then back to the ready room for the dreaded tape debrief. Following the tape debrief, the Blues have an obligated social function. This social function can occur either Friday or Saturday night, at the airshow site's discretion. On the other evening there is typically an optional social function. These social functions run the entire gamut. They can be as elaborate as high powered cocktail parties with the elite members of that town or as simple as a BBQ with a bunch of kids.
The Blues have a couple rules: the mandatory social function must not charge money for attendees, must be open to children, must not include a sit-down dinner (buffet is fine – goal here is to promote interaction), and the mandatory attendance time must not exceed 1 hour. As you can imagine some of these are great, some are awful, sometimes the team can't wait to leave after an hour, sometimes guys elect to stay for several hours. In all cases, there is typically an introduction of the team, pictures, autographs, a presentation of some sort etc. It can be very challenging to actually get something to eat during these functions as the draw on your attention can be overwhelming.
- Saturday: Show day. Repeat of Friday without the guest rider, without Make-a Wish event, and without the recruiting functions in the morning.
- Sunday: repeat of Saturday without the social function. On Sundays, after the admin debrief, #1-#8 hop in the 7 jets and fly home to Pensacola where they then execute the tape debrief. As soon as the jets launch, Bert launches too, typically arriving back at Pensacola while #1-8 are about mid-way through the tape debrief.
In general, life on the road is both grueling and fun. You can see the schedule is packed. One of my main goals was to experience the various cities we visited. I tried to do that Saturday and Sunday mornings. About once a month my girlfriend (now wife) would fly out and spend the weekend at the show with me, which was great. I didn't have a family at home, didn't have kids activities I was missing. I'm sure this was very challenging for the married folks. No doubt for someone married to be a successful BA, they need absolute buy-in from their spouse and family. The spouse basically runs the family Thurs-Sun and then Mon-Wed the BA is home disrupting what the spouse has been doing.
Clearly there are perks. Obviously the Blues get treated well. Like I mentioned above, there's usually a cocktail party or two and dinners each weekend. At the beginning of your tour all this attention and all these activities are great. By the end of your 2 years on the team this starts to get a little old as you get worn down. There are usually opportunities to see some of the cool things in each city – Louisville Slugger museum, baseball/football games (usually on the field or in a box), specially arranged tours etc. These are all great opportunities, but for the most part they are opportunities on your own time. For me, this was part of the BA experience and I wanted to pack all my free time with as many of these opportunities that I could because I knew they were once in a lifetime, so I tried to take advantage of them. Some folks prefer private down time.
One of the biggest perks (I thought) was the availability of golf. One of my jobs that I voluntarily took on was arranging golf each weekend. I would find out how many people were interested in playing and ask the show site to find a tee time for us. Most of the time this resulted in a round at the finest course in town. I tried to play golf every weekend, and probably played 50 courses that I would never be invited to play at now.
True story about me and golf. Prior to the Blues I had been a few times a year golfer. Early in my first year we were at LACC, a very exclusive private club in LA. Beautiful place, caddies, the whole nine yards. I was playing with the clubs I had bought with my Bar Mitzvah money when I was 13, some 20 years earlier. My carry bag had a hole in the bottom, and as my caddie was carrying my bag, clubs would be falling out the hole at the bottom. It was humiliating. I was terrible. I decided then and there I had 2 choices: If I was going to take advantage of the golf opportunities I was going to have to buy new clubs, a new bag, take a couple lessons, and more or less at least try to be quasi-serious about it. If I didn't want to do that, I was not going to continue to participate in these opportunities and embarrass the team. Well I chose the former, bought a set of PING G2's, and became a "golfer." A couple months later I had caught the golf bug full fledged and it has truly become one of my passions.
The biggest perk, by far, is the quality of people you work with. As an officer coming from the fleet I was accustomed to the standard assortment of individuals you work with, specifically on the enlisted side of the house, but officers too. Some more motivated than others, some quicker to learn than others. At the Blues, everyone on the enlisted side is absolutely Sailor of the Year quality. The best of the best. It was very refreshing and rewarding to work with 110 individuals that were all in tune and motivated for the same end-state. There was not a task too small, not a task too large, they just got it done. No follow up required, ever. You ask for something, you need something, and it's done. Period. It was a rude awakening when I got back to the fleet.
Another great opportunity when on the Team is to interact with the other 1st class jet teams around the world. We would usually overlap w/ the Canadian Snowbirds a few times a year and all those guys were great (and boy could they drink beer). We also tried to do a "reunion show" with the USAF Thunderbirds once a year. This was tough due to restrictions on the Blues and T-birds at the same show site, but we usually managed a mid-week get together somewhere. Also the Navy Leapfrogs and US Army Golden Knights (I got to jump with them once, another "once in a lifetime" opportunity!). In the Netherlands we had an amazing opportunity to share the show with the British Red Arrows, the French L'Equipe de France, the Swiss Team and the Italian Team. One of the highlights for me was being in the back of the 7 jet as "photographer" for a formation of the Blues and Red Arrows.
As for the best and worst places we went while on the road, this is a tough one because different places are great for different reasons. San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle, Ft Lauderdale, Quebec – those stand out for the sheer beauty of where you are flying, the way they treat the team (and spouses) is over the top, the activities they have set up are amazing, and they are just great cities. Other smaller show sites – Vidalia, GA, Muskeegon and Traverse City, MI, Kalispell, MT, Grand Junction, CO, Janesville, WI, Fargo, ND – those are the type of show sites that don't have all the glamour, but the entire town opens their doors to you and you become part of the community for a weekend. Just down home good people that appreciate you being there.
We did a couple shows in Canada, one in Leuwarden, The Netherlands, Alaska, one in Hawaii. Those were obviously amazing for the sheer adventure of it all. I even tried an interview in french in Quebec. It failed and we reverted to English. I can truly say there were very, very few "bad" shows. Better and worse, but not bad. I can also say that generally speaking, the military shows sites were typically less fun than the civilian sites. Part of that is budget. Military shows don't charge admission, they use all in-house labor, and don't make a ton of money (what they do make is generally fed into the base MWR programs – Morale, Welfare, and Recreation). Part of that is some military shows "expect" you to be there. The Blues come every year as part of the military outreach and the show sites develop a sense of entitlement. It's just a different reaction than when you make it to Janesville, WI once a decade.
One great story: In 2005, Blue Angel #7 JB and I headed to Kalispell, MT for our Winter visit. It was REALLY cold, a polar something or other was in effect and it was single digit temps. Cold. Our jet broke and a rescue crew was sent. Well, they arrived wildly ill-prepared for the weather. Literally they were working in 10 min shifts and then coming in to get warm. A local sporting goods store popped for all our guys and gave them legit cold-weather gear to work in. Well each day our crew told us the jet was fixed and we would man-up to fly the maintenance (mx) check flight. Our area of ops was on the opposite side of Glacier National Park, so we had to fly through the Park to get there. It was amazing flying among the glaciers, zipping in and out. Absolutely breathtaking. For one reason or another, the jet didn't pass the check flight each day. The crew would work on it and say: "You're good to go for tomorrow." We would hit the rack thinking this was our last night in Montana and get to the airfield the next day ready to head home. This went on for 5 days before we finally got out of there, so we had 5 flights over those amazing glaciers, and 5 nights thinking this was our last night to enjoy the town and people. Great times.
Other great memories included hunting Nilgai on the King Ranch, hunting quail in Georgia, rafting in Alaska, Salmon fishing in Alaska, visiting Amsterdam, driving Corvettes in Seattle, trout fishing in Grand Junction, going to the Orange Bowl in Ft Lauderdale, on the field for a Huskers game in Lincoln, Nebraska, getting stuck at RAF Lakenheath in the UK, my home show in Kansas City, and I can go on and on.
Being in such a public, high-profile job, how do the Blue Angels get to have some fun and let their hair down on the road?
Never fear, there are plenty of opportunities for the Blues to "light their hair on fire". First of all, as described above, on Saturday and Sunday the workday basically starts around noon, so folks can go out pretty late and still get back to the hotel for a full night's rest prior to kicking it into gear on show day. Also, the schedule above depicts a standard show week. Typically three to four times a year the Blues embark on a "Long Trip", which is a string of 2-4 shows together without coming home to Pensacola (typically one Long-Trip to the NE, one to the SW, one to the NW, and sometimes one other).
The purpose of these Long Trips is to make it work logistically as it wouldn't make sense to fly home from San Francisco on Sunday to fly back to San Diego on Thursday – in fact you wouldn't make it all the way home on Sunday, so you would have to fly home Mon, and couldn't make it back on Thursday in time to fly C&A – it just doesn't make sense. However an added benefit is during these long trips the team typically gets two sometimes three days off in whatever city, USA they happen to be in. Game on, the world is my oyster!
Guys (and girls) aren't afraid typically to let loose on these days off and oftentimes the show sites will have activities set up the team can take advantage of, like the fishing/hunting/sports activities described above, or maybe a happy hour somewhere. Also, the Blues become very adept at sniffing out the local hotspots and gravitating towards them. I do want to emphasize however, that despite the fact the Blues are on the road with potential opportunities to party their rears off as local celebrities sometimes, there is no question that each individual recognizes the fact that we are representing all the other USN and USMC servicemen and women out there and appropriate behavior and decorum must prevail. The penalty for overstepping these bounds can be swift and harsh. Everyone knows we operate under a microscope of public scrutiny and there is no tolerance for untoward buffoonery. As I mentioned above, the folks on the Blues are Sailor of the Year quality and get it.
Very rarely was I privy to behavior that exceeded what most people would consider normal acceptable behavior for a group of 25-35 year olds. The Blues are also exceptional at using the "buddy system." If one of your buddies starts crossing the line, get him or her out of there before they do something that reflects poorly on the institution.
For me I used golf to help temper my behavior. As we essentially had to be at work by noon on Sat and Sun, we would need to be done with golf no later than about 1100. That means we were teeing off at 0630-0700, leaving the hotel around 0600-0630, getting up at 0530-0600. That meant 1 night a weekend I had to cash it in early to get some decent rest and limited my late nights out to one night a weekend. This was just my personal technique.
How does all this differ from deployment? Much different. Besides the obvious that you are sleeping in nice hotels and eating in restaurants instead of sleeping in a 6-man on the boat and eating chicken in the Dirty Shirt Wardroom, think of the mission: The Blues fly the same thing, every day. 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.
The Blues see a new city every week, can enjoy a beer with dinner every night, can go for a jog. Guys on the boat step foot on land, drink a beer and sleep in a room by themselves a few times per deployment, maybe 4-5 days every other month if they're lucky. Not saying it's easy being on the road 280 days a year, it's very, very hard, but it's difficult to compare it to deployment. What is similar is the camaraderie in the ready room. The Blues have 16 officers in the ready room who are as close as 16 people can get (at least on my teams in 2005-2006 it was like this). As mentioned above, I believe this is a product of picking your own and of shared experiences. Likewise the guys and gals in my fleet squadrons after a couple deployments were very tight-knit. Especially the 5 other guys I shared a 6-man stateroom with for 2 cruises!
I think the biggest difference is for those guys with families. For a deployment, you say goodbye and return six to nine months later. The Blues season is basically a deployment in four day spurts. You leave on Thursday, come home on Sunday. Very difficult for families to get into any kind of routine. Dad comes home on Sunday and is a hero for three days and then leaves again and Mom has to deal with everything (or roles can be reversed, as appropriate).
As for wild memories – there are some suitable for publishing, others maybe not. Here's a good story that also sheds some light on the unique Blue Angel #7 and #8 relationship:
The 7/8 relationship at the Blue Angels is a unique and special bond. Through the nature of our jobs, 7 & 8 spend an inordinate amount of time together, kind of separate from the rest of the squadron. Winter show site visits, time in the desert at winter training, time in the caravans, time on the narration stand, and time doing all those other things that two friends that treat each other like brothers spend time doing. This story is one from my second year (2006), when my #7 was LT Kevin "Kojak" Davis who tragically perished when he crashed in his #6 jet the following year at Beaufort SC on the 21st of April, 2007. I loved every single second I spent with Kevin. I cherish his friendship, the example he set, and our shared experiences as much as I treasure anything in this world.
Winter Visits is the time in December and January while the majority of the team is training in Pensacola that the 7/8 team head out on the road in the 2-seater F/A-18B/D and visit every single one of our upcoming show sites to make sure they are capable of hosting a Blue Angel airshow. Although most of the team thinks we are out goofing around all over the country, there's actually a lot of work to be done. This story is from Chicago:
The Chicago airshow is one of the premier and most demanding airshows we fly. It is run by a wonderful man named Rudy Malnati, who is Chicago through and through. If I didn't know him I would swear he is Mafia. He's a big man, owns a few pizza restaurants, works on the mayor's staff, and knows everyone in town. Well, when I spoke with him he said we would be picked up by one of his boys, Jimmy The Jeweler. Well, I told this to Kojak and we were like "what? Jimmy The Jeweler? Maybe this guy IS mafia!!"
Well, we got there and it turns out the guy's name was Jimmy DeJuila, not The Jeweler. We do our visit, check out the show site, brief the airshow committee and then that night Rudy takes us out to a late dinner at one of his Pizza Restaurants. Rudy is a great host and feeds us more pizza, lasagna, and beer than should ever be fed to 2 people, especially ones that need to put on a tight blue flight suit the next day. The next morning we get to the field around 10am, still groaning from how full our stomachs were. Rudy gives us a big sweaty hug and says "hey you boys hungry? What, you want a steak for lunch, DeJuila (which sounded like The Jeweler) get these boys some steaks." It's 10am. We don't need a steak. Besides the fact that Kojak and I talked with a Chicago accent for the better part of the next week.
So fast-forward 8 months to the weekend of the Chicago show. Kevin went up there with his crew chief, I think it was Deo, on Wednesday, and I got up there on Thursday with the rest of the team. The first thing I always asked Kojak upon arrival was "how's the show site doing," because he was essentially executing the plan that I had put together. Well, I asked my standard question and he was so excited to recount to me this story that happened to him and his crew chief the previous day: At some point Rudy had sent out for some lunch for 7 and his crew chief, and "The Jeweler" comes up to Kevin with his arms full of food and drinks and says "Hey, you want a shake w/ your lunch?" Kevin responds "sure". The Jeweler asks "you want chocolate or strawberry?" Kojak replies "I guess I'll have chocolate". The Jeweler hands Kojak a chocolate shake and asks "what about your crew chief, does he want a shake?" Kojak replies, "sure, he'll have a shake". The Jeweler asks "what flavor does he want, chocolate or strawberry?" Kevin says, "I guess he'll have chocolate too." The Jeweler looks down in his food-laden arms for a few seconds, looks back at Kevin, shrugs his shoulders and says, "all I've got left is strawberry. So Kevin says, "we'll I guess he'll have strawberry then."
A simple exchange, but one that could get us laughing at the mere thought of it. The relevance? On showdays it had become custom for Kojak and I to touch base prior to the caravan and whomever had their act a little more together usually made a food run. Well from that point on our conversation typically went like this:
"Hey bro, I'm making a food run, you want a steak for lunch?"
"Sure, I'll have a steak."
"You want a milk shake w/ that?
"Sure, I'll take a milk shake"
"What flavor, chocolate or strawberry?"
"I guess I'll have chocolate."
"Sorry, all I've got is strawberry."
"Then I'll take strawberry."
I manned up a jet 79 times with Kojak. He was a great man, an inspiration, larger than life, and had an aura about him that made us all stand up straighter and be proud to be an American. Kevin was a friend to all of us, and like family to many. Words cannot express how much I miss him.
Tell us about the power of the iconic blue and gold flight suit?
In a nutshell, yes, wearing the blue suit transforms you into rock star status, right or wrong. Make no mistake, the rock star is Blue Angel #8, it is not Shaun Swartz. This is an area that can be very challenging for some, and another reason why the rush period is so important – to try and learn how people will react in certain social settings – and why I believe it is important for the team to be able to choose their own. You want folks on the Team that will respect the status the blue suit affords and use that opportunity to promote our USN and USMC and all the wonderful men and women that serve in it. You want that blue suit to make a difference to the 14 year old kid at an airshow that will go home and tell his parents he wants to be a fighter pilot, and will work hard for the next 10 years to achieve that. You want folks wearing the blue suit that want to continue the awesome legacy started by Boss Butch Voris and his Team in 1946. You can't afford having folks on the team that will abuse the privilege of wearing that Blue Suit for some personal gain. You can't afford dudes on the Team that forget that who the public loves is Blue Angel #XX, not Johnny Go-getter. Take the suit off and we are no different than any other USN/USMC Aviator out there in the fleet today. Put the suit on and we have the responsibility to represent EVERY USN/USMC Aviator out there in the fleet today.
We also have to be careful about gifts. Wearing the Blue Suit from city to city we are often offered gifts, mostly in a gesture of goodwill, sometimes in an implicit attempt/expectation of endorsement (like "come to my club and you'll get free entry and free drinks all night," then that club owner can advertise, the Blues will be at my club tonight). There are rules about military members accepting gifts. Gifts are acceptable provided they conform to those rules. In the past several decades, especially with the advent of social media and instant knowledge of anyone doing anything, the military in general has been cracking down and enforcing those rules more than they used to. In the Blues' case, the lawyers at CNATRA were the sounding boards of legality of gifts. I didn't deal with this personally, I am sure there were some gifts we didn't receive because of legal intervention, I am sure some of the gifts we received were borderline acceptable under the rules. I also suspect the team today has to walk this line a little more carefully than we did.
From a flying perspective, when you're in a Blue jet it is like a license to steal. I can't tell you how many tower controllers asked #7 and I to come in as low and fast as we wanted when we were approaching to land during winter visits. "Blue Angel #7, the pattern is open, speed and altitude at your discretion, no restrictions" was a common call. The temptation is of course to scream in just under the speed of sound at an altitude significantly lower than published pattern altitude. In today's unforgiving climate, it only takes one guy to complain to the newspaper who in turn writes an article, or one excited fan who posts a sweet video on YouTube, for a quick trip to the Admiral's office where you would be handing him your wings. Not where you want to be. Discretion is the better part of valor. This goes back to choosing the right people.
My experience is for the most part the folks wearing the blue suit knew where to draw the line. We become very adept at deflecting any personal admiration to our fleet: "Appreciate your comments sir, I'm just thrilled to have the opportunity to continue the legacy established by Blue Angels before me and to represent my brothers and sisters out there in Afghanistan everyday by flying a Blue jet. This is a pretty great job!"
The Blue Angels have come under fire recently for some pretty wild antics behind the scenes, with one member of the team blowing the whistle for sexual harassment resulting in the termination of a former Blue Angels Boss. Were these claims a reaction to just relatively harmless "business as usual" fighter pilot culture or does the culture really need to change? How do women integrate in the fleet squadrons by comparison? By and large has culture changed with their presence in that environment?
You can read here about the allegations made against two-time Blue Angels Boss Captain McWherter and the team as a whole.
Ever since I started my career in Naval Aviation women have been part of the landscape, so I cannot answer definitively what changes, if any, women have brought to the "culture." For me, women have always been part of the culture. When I was going through flight school women were relatively new to the fighter community. There were stories of women getting passing grades and choice assignments with inferior performance. I cannot substantiate that.
Kara Hultgreen, who I believe was the first woman to be carrier qualified in the Tomcat, died when her F-14A stalled and flipped over during an approach turn to the boat. The scuttlebutt was that she never should have been flying Tomcats in the first place. I cannot substantiate that. What I can say is that every squadron I was a part of had women aviators. Some were very good, some were less so. Guess what, every squadron also had male aviators. Some were very good, some less so. In my experience, the women I crossed paths with were every bit a part of the ready room as the men, regardless of ability in the aircraft. They were treated as equals – as "FNG's" ("F**king New Guys", as is common to refer to new members of a squadron, male or female, until they have "earned" their own proper call-sign) - they got the cruddy jobs, they stood the cruddy watches, they flew the night re-spot missions, they were the brunt of ready room jokes, just like their male counterparts. In my experience, those women dished it as well as they got it, just like their male counterparts. They sat in the ready room and heard the crude jokes, told the crude jokes, laughed at the crude jokes, just like their male counterparts.
If any of the women I have gone through Naval Aviation with were offended by the typical male humor, I never knew it. I was never made aware of any woman complaining of the environment. Resources are out there if a woman, or their male counterpart, feels harassed/degraded/uncomfortable etc. I never saw anyone (male or female) take advantage of those resources.
The Blues are a unique bunch. The ready room consists of 16 Officers (now 17 with the added Executive Officer, a new addition since the complaint came to light). Of those 16 officers, ten are aviators, six come from other non-aviation communities. Of the ten aviators, seven come from the Fighter Community, three from the C-130 community. It is my experience that every community is different and Naval Aviation is different than the rest of the Navy. What I am trying to express is what is "normal" in Navy Fighter Aviation may not be "normal" in the C-130 community and may not not be "normal" in other Navy communities (for example Supply, Public Affairs, Medical etc). So if I reach back to my business school classes on Organizational Management and Building Teams and the like, I can recognize a few things that can happen. "Group Think" can arise, where the less vocal or vocally weaker-willed of the group take on the opinions and actions of the more vocally strong-willed. Or the Team can be split into different factions. Or healthy discourse can arise that causes all members to analyze their position and reach some sort of consensus on path forward. A strong leader can facilitate the latter.
On my teams in 2005-2006, we were blessed with a couple things in our favor. First our Boss was a very strong leader. Second, our non-aviator officers were all exemplary folks both personally and professionally. Third, the Teams that preceded us chose wisely. They chose folks that would fit together, that would mold together to create a team. In 2005, there was one woman on our team and in 2006 there were two (I'm only going to discuss the officer cadre, there were obviously many more females in the enlisted ranks). In both cases these women fit in well with the team, as did our male non-Aviator Officers, and the ready room quickly resembled what I was accustomed to in the Fighter community. Did we tell dirty jokes – yes. Did we make fun of each other – yes. Were dirty pictures placed in cockpits to make pilots laugh – yes. Did we engage in "sophomoric" humorous activities – you betcha. Was any of this targeted at a specific person or group – no. Was everyone targeted with "equal opportunity" – yes. Was anyone offended or harassed – not that I am aware of.
I am unable to comment on the circumstances surrounding Boss McWherter's teams specifically because I was not a part of them.
I know Boss McWherter fairly well, that is to say I have never served with him but I have met him, spoken with him, played golf with him etc dozens of times and I know some of the dudes that did serve with him extremely well. I believe Boss McWherter is an exemplary officer, leader and warrior. I do not believe Boss McWherter would permit any actions to continue if he had awareness that someone in his command was uncomfortable. I believe Boss McWherter would not permit actions in his command that jeopardized the Navy core values of honor, courage and commitment.
I entered ROTC in 1991, the year of the infamous Tailhook scandal. Since that time, Naval Aviation has been taking necessary positive steps to de-glamorize alcohol and eradicate the objectivity of women. This is good and I support this. Society in general has been on a similar path over the past 25 years. This too is good and I support this. Before my senior year in college I did a one month training stint at NAS Oceana, in the summer of 1994. At that time they still had greyhound style busses that transported women from Virginia Beach to the Officers Club on Friday nights, and anyone could get through the gate to go to the Club. The parties were epic (even for a midshipman!). A few years earlier they still had strippers in the back room of the Officer's Club on Wednesday and Friday nights. I'm not condoning, I'm reporting. By the time I reported to Oceana for duty in 1998 the buses were gone. We still had very fun Wednesday and Friday nights.
After 9-11 the free pass at the gate to the Club disappeared. We still had fun Wednesday and Friday nights. Fast forward to today and the crack-down on "questionable" behavior has been so severe that the Club is now a ghost town. Maybe a handful of folks at the bar that are in town on temporary duty assignment (TDY) and staying at the Bachelors Officers Quarters across the street. No more Taco Tuesdays. No more Happy Hour Wednesday. No more parties on Friday. Shoot, the club doesn't even have enough support anymore to offer lunch, which used to be a squadron staple.
Is this erosion of the Officers Club as a central part of a Naval Aviator's social scene OK – Sure. Is it good – I don't think so. Is it bad – maybe. Are 25-35 year old Naval Aviators going to still chase women and drink beer – yes. If not at the club, where? Who knows, in town somewhere. It used to be a commanding officer (CO) knew exactly where his junior officers were. No longer. It used to be if a CO saw one of his guys "not acting appropriately" or having had "a bit too much to drink," he could walk that person across the street and make him get a BOQ room and order him not to leave until tomorrow. No longer.
The Navy had no choice but to do what they did to Boss McWherter (and literally dozens of other truly amazing leaders in the past 10 years or so). Society expects it, society demands it. DoD's biggest war today in some respects is not against the bad guys in god-forsaken locations around the globe, but it is against the media in the court of public perception/opinion.
I believe in our core values, I believe in treating people fairly and equally and with dignity. I also believe in the warrior ethos. I believe you want your warrior cadre to have a little chip on their shoulder. When that same warrior is on the ground facing the enemy trying to kill him (or her), or worse facing capture by an enemy intent on impaling him, skinning him alive, beheading him, you name the wretched behavior, I want that warrior to understand it's OK to fight without asking the enemy if he's comfortable with the weapons he plans to use.
Change to the Blue Angel's structure, as in adding an Executive Officer (XO)… I don't know if it will be bad or good or helpful or not. No question taking some of the "admin" duties off the Boss' plate and letting him concentrate on the demo can be beneficial. I also recognize that for old guys the only right way was the way we did it. When I was on the team we were just introducing music to the Demo and took a lot of heat from the old guys that the music wasn't the "Blue Angel way". Well, I think music added to the Demo and made it better. Over time things change, it may just take a few years for us old guys to recognize these changes for the better. I am supremely confident that the Blues will figure out how to incorporate these changes into their structure in a way that ultimately benefits the organization. That's what professionals do.
Currently all Blue Angel positions can be filled by females aside from F/A-18 demonstration pilot, meanwhile the Thunderbirds have had numerous female demo pilots and there are many female fighter pilots in the fleet flying Hornets. Is it really just the heavy trim forces on the Hornet's control stick during the demo to blame for this phenomenon or is it a cultural barrier?
All Blue Angel positions are open to women. We have had numerous women rush the Team and obviously have had women fill just about all the positions other than F/A-18 pilot, to include the BA #8 role as the NFO on the team. The Blues have been, and are still, ready and poised to select a woman, but based on the discussions we had when I was on the team the Blues are not going to select a woman just because she is a woman. The right woman needs to come along that fits all the other criteria to be a Blue (including the strength test), and is someone the team decides they want to spend 280 days a year on the road with.
Like you mention there are plenty of women pilots in the fleet (~10% which more or less equates to the percentage of women overall in the USN). So obviously the pool of women is smaller and the number of women rushing the team is smaller. I know women pilots who would have no problem with the spring (stick forces), and I know men who probably would. It'll happen, when the right gal comes along.
What is it like on days when the team, which is seen as almost perfection incarnated, has a bad day?
Of course the Blues have bad days. A couple things to keep in mind here. First off, the goal of a Blues demo is perfection. As this is unachievable, it gives us something to shoot for every day. Never does the team think "we nailed it" or "that was good enough." There are always things that were done well and others that need improvement.
One of the tenets we are taught as a Blue Angel is the ability to admit when we've made a mistake, or have not "achieved perfection." This is done in the form of "Safeties." Each debrief is started by an around the room tally of "safeties", starting with the Boss and working down to the supply officer in order. For example when it was my turn I might say "I'll take a safety for late hits on the Low Break Cross and Fortus and an additional safety for an early hit on the Delta Roll. I'll also pay $5 for not shaving before I went downstairs for a coffee and I'll pay $5 for a zipper. I'll fix it tomorrow, Glad to Be Here." This is essentially telling the Team that I made mistakes on 3 maneuvers and also recognize I violated policy by being in public unshaven and for having a zipper on my flight suit unzipped. Since the latter two are policy violations, they cost me $5. The essence of my mistakes is not important, that will come out during the meat of the tape review during the debrief, but the fact that I recognized them and owned up to them IS important.
By the time the team gets to demo season, mistakes made are usually not really noticeable to the general public watching the show. They don't really recognize the small deviations that to us are being out of position. For example, here's an insider piece of info for you – have you ever noticed during a maneuver when someone's smoke goes off? Most people probably think there's a hiccup in the smoke system in that particular jet. While that may be the case, most of the time it is not. When someone is out of position, and recognizes it, they turn their smoke off. This is a signal to #4, the slot pilot/Training Officer/Safety Observer during the demo that they are out of position. #4 will then clear that pilot to take their "clear" position, which increases safety margin and is usually maybe a few feet further away from the formation. This is safer than trying to press in an incorrect position. When it is safe to resume the correct position, #4 will clear that pilot back into formation, and when that jet is back in position he will turn the smoke back on, signaling to #4 that he is back where he is supposed to be. So on my teams during 2005-06, that was the culture. Admit your mistakes and come back tomorrow trying to fix them and everything is good.
I am pretty sure not all Teams have been as lucky as I was. We had a sound team that generally speaking did not have any major issues flying. And the old adage is certainly true, that if the Demo is going well everything is going well. I am quite certain other teams that had major issues with the flying probably had strife. I just didn't see that in my tenure. Close calls? Of course. When you're flying 2' away from your best buddy everything is a close call. I think we had one incident when 2 guys swapped a little paint (rubbin is racin'), but fortunately nothing bad happened and they learned from their mistake and fixed it for the next flight.
One incident I will recount, US Naval Academy my first year, weather was terrible, very low ceilings. Jets take off from Andrews AFB and fly to USNA, maybe 30 miles. Well Boss launched the gang and flew the whole delta formation over there under the low ceilings, maybe 150'. Got to USNA, did a flat show if I recall correctly and flew back under the weather. Successful, yes. Stupid, yes. Power lines, towers, obstacles etc that nobody had studied. Just not the smart way to do business in an airplane. Boss owned up to it in the debrief, and never pressed weather minimums again.
As defense budgets continue to come under fire, are military flight demonstration teams really justified?
Do we want to continue to have an all-volunteer force, the best fighting force in the world? This is what you get.
The Blues (and other demonstration Teams) are a source of inspiration, a source of patriotism, a chance for Americans to look into the sky with pride and know they can go to sleep at night feeling safe. The Blues (and other demonstration teams) exist for the sole purpose of inspiring today's youth to want to not only join the armed forces and provide that blanket of protection that makes the free world free, but to inspire them to achieve their dreams and to want to be better people.
Can you tell us five things that nobody probably knows about the Blue Angels?
1. The Blues attach a 40 lb spring to the stick in the jet. This spring applies 40lb of nose down stick pressure, so to fly straight and level each pilot is essentially doing a 40lb curl. The purpose of this is it takes out the slop in the stick (imagine driving down the street in your 1965 Ford F-100 and the wheel moves +/- a couple inches left or right without the truck actually moving, same thing happens in a jet, and you can't have that flying a few feet apart).
2. On Sunday nights when the Blues fly home after a show and still have their debrief to do when they get back (figure 2 hours or so), they are greeted by dinner in the ready room compliments of the Wives Club.
3. When the Blues were founded in 1946, one of the original requirements was that all members had to be bachelors.
4. The Blue Angels are named after a bar in New York.
5. The Blues are required to shave before being seen in public, must iron and tuck in their shirts, and are not permitted to wear open toed shoes (men anyways). Violations cost you $5.
What was it like the very first time you flew in an F-14 Tomcat?
The first time I was in a Tomcat ("Tom") I remember looking back over my shoulders at altitude seeing the wings swept back and thinking "Holy crap, I'm in a freaking Tomcat!" Pretty cool. I was flying with "Heavy D" Burke and we were on our way to Kingsville for a demo weekend. "Popeye" Doyle was flying the Demo bird that weekend and Heavy D and I got to take the spare out there. My first intro to the fighter pilot culture. We landed and Popeye came up to me and said "Here, you're going to need this this weekend" and ripped off my "Tomcat" patch and replaced it with an "F-14 Demo" patch. For that weekend I wasn't just a lowly RAG student, I was a Tomcat guy.
Learning to employ the Tom encompassed the full range of emotions. Of course it was awesome and I loved every bit of it. I loved the camaraderie, I loved the machismo, I loved actually being in the jet, I loved the smell of it – the fuel, the hydraulic fluid, the stains in the seat. I loved the sound of the huffer starting up before we got the engines on line. I loved the thump as the wings moved, I loved the fact that all the labels on all the buttons and switches were worn off – you actually had to know which switch did what. I loved the main computer interface, a rotary drum. I loved the fact that the pilots relied on us Radar Intercept Officers (RIOs) to run the radar and find the bad guys. At the same time it was extremely challenging.
I hated jumping in the notch (where the target is moving perpendicular to the doppler radar beam, thus disappearing) because that blew our radar situational awareness and I had about 4 seconds to step through the TOPGUN recommended radar game-plan to reacquire the target post notch. That was the mark of a good RIO, could you reacquire post notch? Or later, on cruise, could you find the tanker in pulse search mode?
I was an average student in the RAG. I always knew all the knowledge questions I was supposed to know of course, and I think I had above average situational awareness overall, but actually executing, making the all-powerful AWG-9 radar do what I wanted it to do, what I needed it to do, always seemed to be a crap-shoot. Reacquiring the target 50% of the time out of the notch was pretty standard for me, and pretty average overall.
One flight in Tactics Phase I downed (failed the hop) and I had thought that I hadn't even done that poorly. Back then our displays weren't recorded; the only indication an instructor had as to whether you were doing what you were supposed to do was your results. There was no opportunity for a "tape debrief" where an instructor could point out an error in technique that might actually help you get better. Anyway, that flight I downed and the next flight on my re-fly I flew with the Operations Officer who was known to be very tough, and a big screamer in the airplane. Well sure enough he screamed at me the whole flight, I thought for sure I downed that ride too, but last run I rocked the visual identification (VID), which was really challenging because on top of the dreaded acquire out of the notch you had to remember to switch over to the Television Camera Set (TCS) to get the VID, then back to the radar to get the forward quarter missile shot. Well I rocked it, my instructor begrudgingly said I did "good enough" in the debrief. All downhill from there.
Tomcat culture. We were the best, period. Everyone on the boat wanted to be a Tomcat guy (or so we believed, and professed). Especially the Hornet guys, who had an airplane with not enough gas, a FLIR pod inferior to the LANTIRN, an AMRAAM which was a smaller stick than the AIM-54 Phoenix, no one to talk to in the cockpit or commiserate with when you got stranded in Galveston Texas on the way across the country, and most importantly, half as many guys in the squadron to do the same number of jobs. Those guys were just plain overworked. Meanwhile 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 (HA HA). We were Tomcat guys. Ironic now that I'm a Hornet guy that I say those things, but that was my outlook as a young guy in the fleet. That was the sentiment we all shared. There was no ill will, we just believed that and acted like that. It was fact.
Now that I'm a Hornet guy too (and love the airplane by the way – not quite as sexy, but darn capable), I think the demise of the Tomcat, while tragic, really helped the Hornet community. That Tomcat culture, that fighter pilot spirit, migrated to the Hornet community (at least the 2-seat Hornet community) with the large influx of Tomcat guys, and that fighter spirit intrinsic to Naval Aviation is alive and well today in the Hornet community. It was probably there all along, I was just too blinded by my good fortune and having the time of my life to believe anyone else could possibly be as cool as we were.
Here's a good nugget (first deployment naval aviator or naval flight officer) boat story – when I checked in with my squadron, VF-211 was in the middle of COMPTUEX, a 6 week boat trip part of work-ups. I was shown to my room, a 6-man on the O3 level near the front of the boat. Our ready room was RR8, near the back of the boat. For some reason the first time I went to the ready room I went through the carrier's huge hangar bay, which is essentially the 0 level. So down a few flights of stairs to the hangar bay, walk all the way aft, and then back up a few flights of stairs to get to our ready room.
For the uninitiated, walking around the carrier is very confusing and you are easily lost. Well I was uninitiated. But I knew how to get from my room to the ready room and back – through the hangar bay. I knew it wasn't the most expeditious route, but I didn't really mind because I got to see all the activity in the hangar bay and look outside and see the waves the boat was making as it cut through the water etc. It was a scenic walk and I enjoyed it. Fast forward about 4 weeks, I am still traversing to-from the ready room through the hangar bay, well one day I skip down my stairwell only to find the hangar bay closed for cleaning. Newman! I had no idea how to get to the ready room any other way. About 30 minutes later I arrive in the ready room, after swallowing my pride and asking about 6 enlisted folks along the way the best route to get to RR8. I was late to whatever I had to be there for and severely mocked to boot. Guess what? That day I learned how to navigate my way around the ship using the frame numbers, like every other person on the boat!
Flying over Iraq while Saddam was still firmly in control must have been quite the experience, can you share with us some of your most interesting recollections from this time?
Operation Southern Watch (OSW) was kind of anti-climatic for me, now that I look back at my experiences in Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). That said, at the time we didn't know any better. 9-11 had not happened yet, not everyone going on cruise was getting combat missions and dropping dozens of bombs over their six to nine month deployment. So at the time, OSW was very real.
For me as a first-cruise nugget, it was my first taste of combat, my first chance to get to do what I was trained for. As I mentioned before, I showed up to VF-211 about half way through workups for deployment, so I finished those and then benefited from immediately doing the full cruise. We had a pretty junior squadron, about 10-12 of us checked in within three to four months of each other and our ready room was largely full of nuggets. About half way through cruise I started getting scheduled for OSW hops. At the time it was all about no-fly zone enforcement over Iraq, our carrier was charged with enforcing the southern no-fly zone.
The Iraqis would play cat-mouse games with the lines, flying a few miles over the line then high-tailing back to where they were supposed to be. Of course when they did this, we had to retaliate in some fashion to show them that we were serious about their prohibition of flying over the line. These missions usually took the form of taking out some surface-air missile site or similar. Sometimes we were successful, sometimes the Iraqis had moved whatever our target was for that night (most of their surface-to-air missile sites were mobile).
I only flew four or five OSW hops, one I think which was a TARPs reconnaissance mission to find a suitable target for a forthcoming retaliation strike mission. I didn't drop any ordnance in OSW, I think about half the time we flew these we actually ended up dropping. The missions seemed long at the time, three to five hours, but short by OEF/OIF standards.
No kidding the most stressful part was getting gas. I acutely remember one of these missions, I was flying with "Sluggo" Moore, my crew-paired pilot, and the tanker was in the goo (bad weather). At this point in time I had tanked, but not a ton, and it was still a new and exciting experience. And since I was the new nugget, normally my pilot knew where the tanker was before I did. Anyway, Sluggo and I were looking for the tanker and of course it was right in the layer of weather. We had the tanker on radar and joined via a radar lock, it wasn't until we were in port observation position (off the rear left wing of the tanker) that we could actually see the tanker, and barely at that. Sporty to say the least, tanking in IFR conditions is not where you want to be.
Another nugget story, not at all related to OSW is about half way through cruise Skipper Ullrich allowed us nuggets to start flying together. I'll tell you after 2 years of flight school getting yelled at, then a year of the RAG getting yelled at, then a year of being a clueless nugget flying with a senior squadron mate, nothing is quite like that first time you get to go flying with one of your peers, where finally you feel like you aren't being graded.
My pilot and I were the second crew of nuggets to get to fly together. I was giddy like a school-girl. We figured between the two of us we could figure it out, stay out of trouble, get home safely and stay out of the limelight. We launched off the waist under Case I conditions – genius. My pilot executes his clearing turn, heads out to about 3nm and starts DESCENDING. "Hey bro, whatcha doin?" I asked from the back seat. "Just taking her a little lower," he responded. Crap, I thought to myself. Now this was fun, don't get me wrong, but the last thing I wanted to happen was the Boss to see us descending and ask our Skipper why his cowboy nuggets weren't adhering to required altitudes. Our days of flying without adult supervision would be over. Well my pilot went down to about 200 feet over the water and at 10 miles from the boat we zoom-climbed up to altitude. I was praying no one saw us (to note, you could never do that in today's airplanes. Nowadays Big Brother is always watching in the form of maintenance downloads that can recreate the aircraft's flightpath/speed/altitude quite easily). Anyways, no one ever said a word and the nugget flying program continued.
Another quick nugget story….my first time manning up on the flight deck, there's a naugahyde cover on my AWG-9 control stick. I had never seen a cover in the cockpit before, and not knowing what to do with it, I took it off and tossed it behind my back onto the flight deck, thinking nothing of it. I turned around a few seconds later, really just to check to make sure the plane captain had seen it, and caught the most disgusted "what the hell are you doing you prima-donna officer who doesn't deserve to be doing what you are doing" look from the deck chief. I didn't understand it at the time, and never did get a chance to apologize to that chief (mainly because I was so new I didn't know who he was, and wasn't about to ask). You never throw something on the flight deck (which is packed with running jet engines) that may turn into foreign object debris (FOD)! A clear violation of basic boat safety rules. I was so green I didn't have a clue.
What was it like being in a front line Navy fighter squadron as the attacks on 9/11 happened?
When the attacks of 9-11 hit, I was airborne about 30 min out of NAS Oceana, VA enroute with "Twiggy" to NAS Fallon for Air Wing Fallon, the next-to-last stage of "work-ups" prior to going on cruise. The radio crackled and our controller said we had been instructed to return to base. I calmly replied that we were a military aircraft enroute to military training in Nevada. She again said we were instructed to return to base. I thought this couldn't be right? I got on the back radio and checked in with base and told them we were being instructed to turn around. An O-4 (Lt Commander) was manning the radio, which NEVER happened. He told us to come home. When I inquired why, he just said "Come home now."
We landed back at Oceana and returned to the ready room where we saw the replays on TV of the jets hitting the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Not good. It was fairly chaotic. There was a list on the white board of weapons systems, missiles, tactics etc and names next to each. Our Training Officer had set up a crash review of all our weapons and tactics and assigned folks to brief the squadron. We were on hold. In the matter of a few hours we learned our "official" capacity was back-up to the USAF squadrons flying CAP off the East coast of USA.
The next few days were spent at the squadron waiting to be called, in the books reviewing our tactics and procedures and all-squadron briefs as described above. After three to four days we learned our impending departure date for deployment had been moved up by two months or so and our NAS Fallon detachment went from four weeks long to two weeks long.
We launched again to head out to NAS Fallon and I remember how quiet it was on the radios. Normally when flying across the country the radios are a constant chatter with all the airlines reporting their position, talking to the controllers etc. Not this day. The radios were silent, airlines were still out of business. Weird. We got to Fallon and did our business. Meanwhile we're hearing news about our buddies out on cruise who we're spinning up to relieve, and all the missions they're flying, the bombs they're dropping, and we wanted to get out there before all the action was over. Fear, anger? There was that, but it was more of a "down to business" mindset, at least for me as junior officer.
This is why we all had joined the Navy, what we had trained for, and up until now, what no one had done really since Vietnam – fly real combat missions with a real enemy for real reasons. I think a better word would be disbelief. How in the heck could someone have achieved that? HOW? I mean really, four hijacked airplanes. All the deaths and destruction. Made me sick to my stomach. Not fear and anger, but disbelief and resolve.
When our deployment dates moved, it ended up we were flying out to the boat on a Tuesday. This quickly became the "We're Going to War on Tuesday" cruise. Like "Hey Katie, can't you come visit us in San Diego over the weekend, we're going to war on Tuesday?" I think this kind of light-hearted approach to the task at hand – we knew we were going into combat at some level, and we all had heard the stories of the atrocities the Taliban were capable of, they didn't exactly subscribe to the Geneva Conventions after all – helped keep us level-headed and helped keep emotions in check. I attribute that to our squadron's leadership, a great bunch of fighter pilots/RIOs.
Flying missions over Afghanistan against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda had to be a highlight of your career, were there certain missions that stood out?
I was one of four Forward Air Controllers- Airborne (Called FAC(A)s) qualified crews in our squadron. At the time, only F-14 crews were FAC(A)s. It became evident from the time we landed on the boat and started mission planning that the FAC(A) had been playing and would continue to play, a major role in operations over there. Twiggy and I had finished our qualification the previous year, and during COMPTUEX, the final stage of work-ups after NAS Fallon, we had designed and lead an urban CAS exercise, complete with naval surface gun support, off the coast of Oregon. There we practiced Close Air Support in an Urban environment to get us ready for Afghanistan. I thought the FAC(A) role was the coolest mission set out there. Especially for a RIO, I was charged with being the battlefield manager, controlling assets into and out of the target area. I was pretty excited to put these skills to work even though it meant we also had to do more C-SAR (Combat Search and Rescue) exercises, which typically a FAC(A) crew would lead.
VF-211 "Flying Checkmates" arrived on station in the Gulf and things had more or less quieted down from the initial flurry of activity over Afghanistan. For awhile all we did was fly X-CAS, or on-call missions, which rarely featured actual ordnance drops. Then Operation Anacondahit and we were very busy. In all I had 33 OEF missions, 6 of which I dropped a total of 12 bombs, all 500lb class GBU's (Guided Bomb Units, either laser or GPS).
Three missions in particular stand-out. One was with my pilot "Brew" Bruington where we attacked some mortar positions in the Shah-i-Kot valley. We worked with a Navy EP-3E Aries spy plane with a Special Operations coordinator on-board that day instead of a normal ground-based Joint Terminal Air Controller (JTAC). The Aries, even from its high perch, provided incredibly detailed coordinates of enemy mortar teams, ones that we could not see on our own targeting pod. They instructed a B-1B orbiting high overhead to hit the location with a JDAM so we could see it. It worked perfectly and we engaged the enemy mortar teams and their vehicles successfully. All four jets from the squadron went home 'winchester,' or out of ammo, that day.
Another mission that stood out was one I flew with LT Larry "Lobes" Sidbury. Lobes was our Training Officer, a phenomenal pilot and warfighter, later he became CO of VFA-31. Anyway, on deck we had an error with the AWG-15 Stores Management System, meaning if it couldn't be fixed we couldn't drop bombs. Lobes said we'd launch and try to figure it out airborne. Airborne I ran all the bits, pulled the circuit breakers and yet the error held firm. I asked Lobes if we should notify the ship and let them launch the spare. He said "hell no, keep pulling the breakers, you have two hours to get it working!" The Tomcat had over 100 circuit breakers in the back that the RIO could access and it was common practice to cycle them to get the offending system back on-line. Well I kept cycling the breakers and low and behold after about an hour we were back in business.
We got our gas from the tanker and reported on station. Some Marines were pinned down and taking fire in a complex of buildings. Unlike most targets we had experienced, this one was very prominent, a square walled complex with turret looking things on the corners. On the FLIR (Foward Looking Infrared, the F-14's LANTIRN targeting pod) we could see guys running around down there and see muzzle flashes. On the radio as we were getting coordinates we could hear gunfire in the background and a sense of urgency in the voice of the ground controller.
We received our coordinates, it was one of the turrets/corners of the complex and dropped our first bomb, and it obliterated the target. We saw guys run out after the bomb dropped and go to another part of the complex. We passed this info to the ground FAC and received permission to drop our next bomb where we had just seen everyone run to, which we proceeded to do. "Good hits, good effects," what you always want to hear on the radio after dropping bombs.
The next part was the coolest. Since Lobes and I were FAC(A)s we volunteered to stay on station and manage other assets even though we were winchester (no more ordnance on board). Our sister F/A-18 squadron checked in but since the fidelity of their FLIR was inferior to ours they couldn't make out the target quite as well as we could. I passed "no problem, we'll lase for you." So we executed buddy lase tactics (designating the target with the laser of one aircraft while another aircraft delivers its weapons keyed to the frequency of the lasing aircraft's laser designator) and guided five or six more bombs dropped from the Hornets onto the complex.
Upon checking out when we had to go get gas, the ground FAC told us "Good work, thanks boys." That's why we were there. Those were our boys on the ground getting shot at. Those American boys with moms and sisters and wives and families. I (we) wanted to make sure they got home. It wasn't (for me) anger or revenge or hatred or anything like that. It was simply our boys are getting shot at and they need some help. Glad I got that AWG-15 working, and glad Lobes insisted we press on.
The 3rd mission that stands out for me is a little more light-hearted. My first mission over "the beach" (in enemy territory) with a peer of mine was with Bryan "RJ" Roberts. We were flying on the wing of our Skipper CDR "OP" Honors. Our canopy didn't seal properly so our cabin altitude was all out of whack. No biggy, we've got O2 masks and we're not scheduled to go above 25K' or so. Well what we didn't think about (should have I guess) was that the lack of cabin pressure would cause severe levels of flatulence and it was pretty constant, from both cockpits.
In the Tom, the ECS system (Environmental Control System) was such that most smells went forward. So it was always fun to let out some gas and wait for your pilot to yell some obscenity and put his mask on. Good fun. Well this flight we both had our masks on the whole time because of the cabin pressure thing (and of course because it is a NATOPS requirement). I didn't think much of it. When we landed and pulled out of the landing area and got chained down, as usual, we took off our masks… and almost died. The canopy was still closed, and although not sealed well enough to pressurize, was clearly sealed well enough to keep a good portion of our gas trapped inside. The smell was immediate and horrendous. 6 hours of 2 guys pretty much constantly farting all in our face at once! Masks went back on until we were cleared to raise the canopy.
Was the F-14 prematurely retired?
This is a tough question, with probably no right answer. Do I wish we had a Super Tomcat and that I had been flying that the last 10 years instead of the Hornet/Super Hornet? Absolutely. Did the USN actually lose any capabilities that aren't available with the Super Hornet? Probably not (other than the ability to run – the Tom was fast, the Hornet is not – but what self respecting fighter pilot wants to run from a good fight anyways?)
From what I understand, the decision to not pursue a Super Tom was a political one. I don't know the precise history and don't much care for political squabbling, but I will say that the Tomcat was a capable airplane when it was retired. It was still a major player and made a difference in the War on Terrorism. The Tom was not retired because it became irrelevant. It was retired because it became too costly to maintain. The maintenance man-hours were staggering compared to its Hornet sister. I understand fiscal realities and if the retirement of the Tom enabled us to afford more Super Hornets it was probably a good decision for the USN.
The Super Hornet is a sweet jet, quite capable, and now today (as opposed to when initially fielded) literally buries the Tomcat as I knew it with regards to capability.
Comparing the WSO (Weapon Systems Officer) position of the Rhino (Super Hornet) to the RIO of the Tom, the biggest difference is obviously the Tom had decoupled cockpits, whereas the Super Hornet does not. What do I mean? In the Tom there were literally tasks the RIO could do, had to do, in the back that the pilot could not do in the front. In the Rhino this is largely not the case. Division of duties now is primarily a factor of maximizing lethality and efficiency whereas in the Tom it was driven by no kidding cockpit capability. The Tom (especially the A/B models, and I flew all 3 including the D) was a blue-collar airplane. It required work and skill to employ effectively. The Super is much more capable in that regard and the WSO has transitioned a little from being an "operator" to being a "manager." The WSO today spends a large amount of time processing information the aircraft presents to the crew to make decisions and is much more a "battlefield manager" than I recall in the Tomcat.
What is it like going from the fleet, or the Blue Angels for that matter, and into the cutting-edge flight testing environment with VX-31 "Dust Devils" at NAWS China Lake?
VX-31 was a fantastic experience. I learned a ton, met some great people, played with some cool toys and feel very fortunate to have experienced all that. When I was at VFA-122 (Super Hornet West Coast RAG) I decided to transition to the AEDO (Aerospace Engineering Duty Officer) community. AEDO's are essentially the acquisition workforce of the USN. My reasons for deciding to transition are numerous and varied, but the big drivers were better career progression opportunities (for me), better foundation of experience from which to draw from when seeking post-Navy employment/career, and an assessment that the transition would benefit our family life. I won't lie, it was with no small amount of trepidation that I made the jump, as I really had no desire to come out of the cockpit and I knew that only about one third of AEDO billets are flying billets.
As a non-Test Pilot School graduate, I had no idea I could get a VX slot, so I was tickled pink when the Detailer offered me the VX-31 position. China Lake is an interesting place. From a living stand-point, there is not a lot to do there compared to city living, unless you are a desert rat and like to ride ATVs/motorcycles etc. HOWEVER, if you are willing to make a little bit of an effort, the opportunities are endless. You are two hours from Los Angeles, three and a half hours from San Diego, four from Vegas, four from wine country and the coast, five to six hours from San Francisco, three from Mammoth Mountain and world class skiing, and maybe an hour from top notch camping and hiking etc.
VX-31 was an interesting squadron from the get-go, with Hornets, Super Hornets, Harriers, SAR (Search and Rescue) helos, Cobras, several other support aircraft and a few UAVs all under one roof. With different aircraft come Naval Aviators with different experiences and the "culture" they bring back from their communities. Awesome to merge all that into one team.
VX-31 is by definition a Weapons Developmental Test Squadron, which sounds as cool as it is, and NAWS China Lake is about the best place in the world to have a squadron whose main mission is to test weapons. The ranges are right there and the flying is awesome. On the Hornet/Super Hornet side of the house, we did a lot of software development – basically testing out software upgrades - software for the aircraft, for the radar and for the weapons. I got to drop weapons that for sure I will never see again, and some that may never make it to the fleet.
One of my favorite missions we did there was Tomahawk chase. We had 4 or 5 crews that were Tomahawk chase qualified and we would basically fly out over the Pacific to where the ship or submarine launching the Tomahawk was and escort the missile as it flew its mission, which culminated in the ranges at China Lake. The WSO has a little box in the back of the jet that allows us to take control of the missile in case it veers from its pre-programmed path or malfunctions in any way. This was an important mission as we obviously can't have an explosive telephone pole sized missile running around on its own over the populous areas of the central coast of California. Fun mission because it was good flying and well, the Tomahawk looks really cool up close in flight. We also executed this off the east coast, where we based out of Eglin AFB, shots were fired off the east coast of FL, and we jumped in the back of an F-15 or F-16 to chase it. Cool stuff.
Other than the 7-8 live missile shots/bomb drops I did, my favorite flying memories are the Tomahawk missions and the shear number of different aircraft I got to fly while there: FA-18D/FA-18F/F-15E/F-16C/AH-1W Cobra/T-39. I also had the opportunity to qualify as a Scan Eagle (small UAV) Mission Commander, so I learned a little about that world, and I was a qualified co-pilot in the T-39, which we used for test support.
By far the coolest hop I did from a pure fun factor was my AH-1W Cobra familiarization flight with "Plarg." In the Cobra the co-pilot sits up front (which was cool for me since I'm usually in the back), and of course it flies low and although not fast compared to a jet, pretty fast for your speed-rush baseline. Plarg and I whisked through the mountains and valleys, he let me fly probably 90% of the time and it was just awesome to fly that warfighting machine!
Today you are an integral part of the F-35 program, do you feel that the criticism the program has received and continues to receive is just?
As you say, the F-35 has been a huge challenge for the DoD. It is the biggest acquisition program in the history of defense, and along with that comes a lot of scrutiny and a lot of experts giving their opinion. I asked to come to the F-35 program. I did so knowing that the program was under a lot of scrutiny, under a lot of pressure, was behind timeline and over budget. I knew the days would be long, the progress measured in baby steps, and that I would probably have more "bad days" at work than "good days." I also asked to come to the F-35 program because I realized that it was the future of Navy Aviation (and USAF and USMC and many other nations' air arms). I asked to come because I knew I would never get to fly the jet (it only has one seat) and I wanted to be part of that future bastion of Naval Air Power.
The questions you ask are difficult to answer considering my relatively small piece of the pie that I am involved in. I own an IPT (Integrated Product Team) of 18 people and we work on our little area of Aircrew Systems. The F-35 program is 2500 people strong directly attached to the Program Office, with another I don't know how many involved throughout the F-35 enterprise – ITF (Integrated Test Force) pilots, Lockheed Martin and all their subcontractors etc etc. So the answers I provide here are probably a little more "Linus opinion" than really based on my position within the F-35 program. They certainly don't represent any opinion of the program itself or our leadership.
I think the F-35 program is important. It is bringing capability to the fleet that does not currently exist. It is bringing a level of collaboration with other nations and services that does not currently exist. The F-35 program has been making progress since I have been here and since I have started following the program, which admittedly is only a few years. The rate at which we fall behind schedule has slowed, the rate at which our costs increase has slowed. In many cases, our schedule and cost has shown reversals and we are actually churning out requirements ahead of schedule at a reduced cost.
As I have sat here in the airport in Memphis the last 2 hours with CNN on the TV I have seen a variety of "News" reports. Not a single one has been positive in nature. I have heard about the storms in the NE and all the devastation associated with them, I have heard about ISIS and their latest terror efforts, I have heard about Whitney Houston's daughter that is now in a coma, the Japanese hostage that is feared beheaded, the Jordanian pilot that ISIS refuses to show "proof of being alive" for (so he is probably dead too), even the reports about the Super Bowl are negative. Coverage of last night's game is all about how the Seahawks called the wrong play and should have given the ball to Marshawn Lynch rather than call the doomed pass play. Not a word exalting the Patriots Championship (and I am a Chiefs fan so didn't care who won). Not one single positive news story in the 2 hours I have been here.
Yes the F-35 program has its share of problems. Yes the F-35 program is expensive. Yes the F-35 is coming to fruition later than the Program envisioned when started some 10-15 years ago. But I'll tell you what, there are a lot of really smart people working really really hard to make this jet right. Right for the warfighters that will one day be flying it in harms way. There are a lot of people working really hard to make this jet, while not cheap, affordable. It's not easy work. This jet will be around some 50 years. There's more to the F-35 story than what we see in the media.
Considering advanced unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs) are on the horizon, and are arguably better suited for the carrier anti-access/area denial combat environment, and seeing that cheaper manned alternatives to the F-35 exist for the majority of Naval air power missions, does it make sense for America to put so many of its fiscal eggs in the F-35 basket?
I think the future will have an increasing role for unmanned aircraft and that one day they will be operating side by side with manned aircraft on the carrier deck. I think it is and will be very difficult to completely replace the man in the loop check we currently have in the kill chain. I personally believe that it would be a mistake to completely remove the human element capable of making decisions based on what he/she is seeing and hearing real-time. That said, in 1994 when my first fraternity brother "Pooner" got a cell phone I thought he was crazy, so who knows where we'll be in 20 years.
All the fiscal eggs in one basket – that's a question for a higher pay grade. All I can say is the F-35 will be a very capable airplane, one that the US will be very glad it has if the threats it was designed to do combat with manifest themselves.
In Your expert opinion, can bombing from high altitude really kick ISIS out of Iraq and eventually crush the group as a whole?
I've never been a ground commander. In fact I've never been a part of a ground force. I also don't know that much about ISIS other than what we all see on the news. To properly answer this question one needs experience in the ground warfare environment and an intimate knowledge of ISIS' resources, structure, tactics, mission etc. That said, throughout the history of warfare since the advent of the airplane as a war machine we have seen the most effective results from a combination of air and ground power.
Traditionally air power softens the enemy, destroys infrastructure and in other ways essentially clears a path for the ground forces to come in and finish the job, while providing an additional layer of protection/support for those ground forces as they advance. So history would tell us we would be more effective if we mixed elements of both air and ground power. In today's model of warfare, it is unacceptable to sustain "collateral damages" that were understood as commonplace casualties of war back in the World Wars. So…"kinetic events" must be precise and accurate, every time. This is not bad, in fact this good. However, it makes rooting out an enemy that employs as their tactics intermingling with innocent women and children and hiding in schools, hospitals, places of worship etc difficult with air power alone.
The problem as I see it is the 2 sides don't play by the same set of rules. It would be hard for Tiger Woods to win a golf tournament if he couldn't use his driver or woods, but everyone else could. I don't think air power alone will suffice. I think you need someone on the ground to assess the damage and to determine the remaining strength of the enemy. Someone on the ground that can mingle with the populace and keep their eyes and ears open to enemy movements and gatherings. I do think however as we get deeper and deeper into this anti-terror war that traditional ground troops will continue to become less important and reliability on the likes of our special forces will increase. We can't just roll a tank down main street to ISIS headquarters and blow it up. We need to infiltrate the community, just like they do, learn how and where they operate, and exploit that knowledge.
I think the bigger question is what the US military should be doing in regards to ISIS. Obviously the atrocities and terror that ISIS and groups like it carry out are against the American way of life. In that respect, we (USA) feel honor-bound to fight to repel those groups.
Today's US fighting force is spread thin. Back-to-back-to-back deployments are not uncommon. Our equipment is aging in some areas, and does not receive all of the required maintenance upkeep in others. Training dollars have been reduced. Acquisition dollars are dwindling. Our force structure is at the lowest level in some time. Our troops are tired, overworked, and in many cases underpaid. It stresses the people in uniform, it stresses our equipment, it stresses our budget, and most importantly, it stresses the families at home. There is a herculean fighting effort that has been waged over the last decade by a very small fraction of the US' population. We can't have it both ways. We can't have a smaller defense bill while asking more of our defense force.
If we want to further the cause of democracy at every turn, then we need to make the necessary investments in personnel, machinery and public involvement such that we're not asking too much from too few.
A huge thanks to Shaun "Linus" Swartz for taking what ended up being a tremendous amount of time to share his incredible personal experiences and insights with Foxtrot Alpha readers.
With any luck we we will have "Linus" back again sometime in the future to talk more about his fascinating career and his passion for Naval Aviation.
All photos are via Shaun Swartz's personal collection or from Tyler Rogoway
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com