Blue Angels
October 10, 2005 10:46 AM   Subscribe

How elite are the Blue Angels?

I'm curious about how the Blue Angels compare to other Navy pilots, how they are perceived within the Navy, how competitive the application process is, and how difficult their maneuvers are relative to actual combat flying.

I would think that the Navy would want to showcase "the best of the best", but at the same time I feel like the real top pilots should be doing more important things than air shows. Particularly during wartime, do others see them as being cowardly for avoiding combat duty? On their website it lists the requirements for joining, but it doesn't say how many people apply each year, etc. Also, while their tight formations and high-speed tricks are impressive to me as a civilian, is this really the pinnacle of military aviation? Do other Navy (or Air Force) pilots look at them and go "Whoa!" like I do, or is this child's play to them? Any insight would be appreciated.
posted by rorycberger to Law & Government (19 answers total)
I don't remember if it was the Blue Angels or not, but apparently the British pilots once got a lock on hot shot american fighter pilots with a trainer plane.
posted by drezdn at 10:49 AM on October 10, 2005

I don't think anyone would look at them as cowardly. Most interceptor pilots don't do much in a war nowadays since we don't tend to mix it up with dangerous air forces, and the Blue Angels stunts are quite risky.
posted by selfnoise at 11:00 AM on October 10, 2005

Might be a good question to post on sci.military.naval or rec.aviation.military.naval -- it'd be a good respite from all the OT political mudfights going on in those groups nowadays.
posted by alumshubby at 11:05 AM on October 10, 2005

I looked through some of the bios on the Blue Angels and Thunderbird sites. It looks like their typical career path is: decorated combat tours of duty -> flight instructors -> demonstration teams. They're also generally older, in their thirties. So they've paid their dues as far as courage, and the other option would probably be to retire and go fly airliners.

(Also, I don't think the requirements for joining have much to do with the actualities of joining. Almost any pilot is eligible but that doesn't mean much.)
posted by smackfu at 11:09 AM on October 10, 2005

I watched a documentary on them (HD, natch) and they are pretty elite as far as being top of their class and having so many hours of airtime before they get in. The stunts they perform are very, very hard and require a lot of training. The use video cameras and train endlessly to get within 4 inches of each other and pull their stunts without crashing. It's really more of a timing thing than anything else.

I don't think Blue Angels have a direct correlation in their ability to be a Red Baron, being able to pull off loops in unison does not really present itself in modern warfare.

I hate to say it but the Blue Angels are probably one of the bigger wastes of taxpayers money. They fly multi-million dollar planes, take up years upon years of training and the maintenance of these high performance planes must be mind boggling. Not to be Scrooge but I don't think the expense justifies the neat value -- as very few us have actually tried this aeronautical acrobatic show and know how difficult it is.
posted by geoff. at 11:21 AM on October 10, 2005

IANA fighter jock, but I've known more than a few.

Usual answers: the sort of precision formation flying that the Blue Angels, Thunderbirds, etc do is hard, but mostly in the formation side of the equation. Any combat pilot should be able to do the maneuvers themselves -- it's doing them 18--36 inches away from several other planes, week in, week out, that's the how-lee shit part. Some of the maneuvers they do are derived from combat stuff, some aren't.

None of it really has much to do with normal combat, where being able to see the other guy with the naked eye means you fucked up, and they don't generally do the energy-management maneuvers of real dogfighting. Actual bad-ass air-to-air combat skills are more systems management, strategy, and situational awareness than they are fancy maneuvers.

Again, just from talking to fighter jocks in the family and friends' families, back in the eighties.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:21 AM on October 10, 2005

Another thing to remember is that most pilots are only in the elite squad for 2-4 years max, and I assume that if there were to be an out and out war with a country with a real Air Force, then they would be put into combat machines. It's not like it would be that difficult to get them into a combat ready machine within a few hours of hostilites starting if they were truely needed. You should also consider the fact that most of the US jet pilots are top notch and even the worst ones would probably matchup favorably against most of the the other forces they'd come up against, also add on the additional technology they have available in their machines. I'd like to think that the extra billions spent for R&D actually mean that US pilots and forces are better train and less likely to be killed should they be needed in full out, end of the US type war.
posted by Numenorian at 11:59 AM on October 10, 2005

Response by poster: It's not like it would be that difficult to get them into a combat ready machine within a few hours of hostilites starting if they were truely needed.

Good point. They claim in the FAQ that their planes can be converted to be combat ready in 72 hours, so obviously this is something they've thought about.

Thanks for all the responses so far. I'm still kind of interested in how other Navy pilots perceive them. Maybe cowards was the wrong word in my question, but are they thought of as show-offs? PR machines? A waste of resources? Old farts past their prime? etc.
posted by rorycberger at 12:37 PM on October 10, 2005

There was a whole set of shows about them on the Discovery Channel and the Military Channel not long ago, watch for them, they will probably be reran. It's tough work, it documented the case of a pilot that got admittted to the team and couldn't hack it and was replaced. I think he had some health problems, you have to be in top physical condition to do what they do.
posted by Justin Case at 12:47 PM on October 10, 2005

And also they are officially used for recruitment, they are there to make the 10 and 11 year olds go "I wanna do that when I grow up"
posted by Justin Case at 12:49 PM on October 10, 2005

IAANA (I am a naval aviator)....

Just like anything else, pilots have various opinions of the guys on the Blue Angels team. It is true that the pilots are treated like rock stars by both the public and many within the service. Some are jealous, thinking it is undeserved, and others are simply envious.

The one great thing about being a Blue Angel is all of the flying time available. Blue Angels get to fly much, much more than fleet pilots, and that is THE number one priority to most pilots.

Nearly all of the maneuvers are typical things we do in the fleet; however, we don't do them so close to the ground. Loops are a good example -- I have never done one where I ended up a few hundred feet (or less!) off of the ground.

And yes, the application process is very, very, very difficult.
posted by bagels at 1:15 PM on October 10, 2005

Yeah, you have to remember that they are a huge recruitment tool for the Navy (and some of that probably leaks over to the Marines and the Air Force). For all your agreement or disagreement with military recruiting practices, they perform that job admirably and put a very good face forward for the good people in our armed forces.

I also suspect that you should be much more infuriated about the waste of taxpayer money overseas at the moment, and not in maintaining a real source of pride for a lot of Americans.

Somebody went to Fleet Week in SF this weekend, didn't they? :) Amazing show!
posted by symphonik at 1:35 PM on October 10, 2005

Gotta put in some props for my "home team" -- the U.S Air Force Thunderbirds!

And re: perception among fellow fighters jocks: I've never noticed any discernible feelings of superiority/snobbery among the pilots, nor have I seen evidence of non-Thunderbirds viewing them as show-offy or overly smug. In my experience, they are just damn amazing pilots who take amazing risks, and in the process create some magic for fellow military folks and civilians.
posted by davidmsc at 2:12 PM on October 10, 2005

Might want to ask this question at, a forum for Navy aviation.

One thing to bear in mind about these maneuvers is that it is highly unlikely they would ever be used in actual combat since so much of air power these days is BVR (beyond visual range). The military spends billions developing missiles that can shoot down enemy aircraft long before a dogfight might occur.

Same thing applies when you hear about British (or Indian or Israeli) pilots out-maneuvering our guys--for the sake of these exercises, they don't consider the use of long-range missiles.
posted by Brian James at 2:25 PM on October 10, 2005

I have heard the Canadian Snowbirds are technically more skilled, in that the craptastic little planes they fly are just that much more difficult to fly. However, I also rather strongly suspect that this rumour is, in fact, just a case of Canadian assholery of the "we're so much better than Americans" variety. Which, while true in so many regards, may not be so for the stunt flying stuff.
posted by five fresh fish at 3:26 PM on October 10, 2005

fff: please report to the wood shed behind the hockey rink for your big heaping of whuppass. Once your punishement for anti-Canadian behaviour has been administered, you will be issued a coupon for 1 double double and an apple fritter from Tim's.
posted by smcniven at 5:48 PM on October 10, 2005

I've seen, at various points, the Snowbirds, Thunderbirds, Blue Angels, Red Arrows, and more, and I tells ya none of them hold a candle to the Italian aerobatic demonstration team of the late 70s/early 80s. It was amazing they could even get into their planes with balls that big.

But they mostly died in flames at Ramstein. Bleah.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:24 PM on October 10, 2005

As for relative skill issues, the US was surprised in 2004's joint exercises with India, because they gave our pilots a real drubbing:

> Although service officials have been reluctant to detail how the Indians performed against the six F-15Cs from the 3rd Wing that participated in Cope India, Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-CA) said in a Feb. 26 House Appropriations defense subcommittee hearing that U.S. F-15Cs were defeated more than 90 percent of the time in direct combat exercises against the IAF.

The US was reluctant to bring F-16s to India, as these are the planes that we supply to Pakistan, but it was thought that the F-15s would fare at least even. The Indo forces used a combination of French and Russian planes, most notably the Su-30K Flanker.

The Pentagon rationale boils down to "the F-15 is old and we need new planes like the F/A-22", but there also seem to be some inherent issues with by-the-book training from Cold War days that hasn't improved with the times.
posted by dhartung at 1:09 AM on October 11, 2005

well it is true the F-15 design is older than the space shuttle and it's current roll is more of a bomber than a fighter. It's a bit long in the tooth for air to air combat and you have to remember that the best pilots want the best machines, if the F-15 hasn't been the best fighter in 15+ years, what does that say about the pilots that fly them. I'm not surprised that the 2nd or 3rd string lost. I agree with the Pentagon in this case, do a rematch USAF's best vs IAF's best and see if the odds are closer to even. This almost sounds like some sort of set up by the Pentagon in saying OMG we just got P0wnd by the IAF, we need more money!
posted by Numenorian at 9:12 AM on October 11, 2005

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