Here come the Blues!
By CASEY WILSON
News Review Correspondent
Six combat F/A-18 Hornets, six pilots, six enlisted plane captains and one narrator will line up front-and-center on the tarmac of Armitage Field, Naval Air Warfare Station, China Lake, for the opening of a long-awaited return of the Blue Angels, formally known as the United States Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron.
On March 18 the aviators will “kick the tires and light the fires” for the second of 63 flight demonstrations scheduled for their 2017 season. For more than an hour the “Blues” will thrill the audience with precision flight routines beginning with their signature pass of four aircraft in a diamond formation with less than two feet separation between wingtip and canopy.
During the rest of the year they will visit 34 venues from San Diego to Brunswick, Maine; from Seattle, Wash., to Pensacola, Fla.
It takes more than those 19 spit-and-polish performers to make the precision ground and air choreography happen. According to Cmdr. Ryan Bernacchi, the Blues’ commanding officer and flight leader, it takes 130 women and men working full-time in the background handling everything from aircraft maintenance to logistics, with event coordination and administration filling in the mix.
When the Blue Angels got together for their first flights back in 1946, they took to the skies in three propeller-driven F6F Bearcats. In 1949 they increased the team roster to six aviators and climbed into their first jets, the F9F Panther. When the team performed last at China Lake in 1981, the Blues numbered eight aviators and used the A4 Skyraider. Altogether, eight aircraft models have been painted with the distinctive blue and gold — the U.S. Navy’s official colors.
Other than the smoke generators and the paint job the Navy makes no modifications to the aircraft. All of the Blue Angels’ jets are carrier-capable and can be made combat ready in about 72 hours.
Any Navy or Marine Corps aviator with carrier qualifications and a minimum of 1,250 flight hours may submit an application to join the team. After the applications are reviewed, finalists are selected mid-season and subjected to interviews at the Blue Angels’ home base in Pensacola, where new demonstration pilots and support officers are selected to serve for two to three years. From the office staff to the line mechanics, the team selects applicants for enlisted positions in much the same manner.
Cdr. Denny Wisely, the boss of the 1979-1981 Blue Angels, was no stranger to the Indian Wells Valley when the team arrived for that performance. Wisely had been stationed at Pt. Mugu from 1973 to 1977 as an F-14 test pilot in VX-4. He flew many hours over the China Lake ranges before deploying on USS Midway. That was when he submitted the application to the Blue Angels. After his acceptance, he was appointed to the position of commanding officer and team leader, flying in the No. 1 slot.
Blue Angels are not just stunt pilots. One of the 14 Blues to achieve flag status, Rear Adm. Denny Wisely retired from the Navy in 1994. His combat decorations include the Silver Star, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, a Purple Heart, 29 Air Medals, six Navy Commendation Medals with Combat V, a Combat Action Ribbon, and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry.
He was commanding officer of the USS John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier on January 4, 1989, when two F-14s from his ship engaged and destroyed two Libyan MiG-23 Floggers as the Russian-built aircraft approached the Tomcats in a hostile manner.
He now lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., with his wife Nadine.
Pictured: The Blue Angels, pictured during their 1981 visit to China Lake. -- Courtesy photoStory First Published: 2017-03-10