As part of our feature on aerobatic displays in our latest issue, we were lucky enough to speak with Mark Tedrow, the current Lead Solo pilot for the Blue Angels (BA 5). He was more than happy to tell us all about how the Blue Angels put together their shows, and how he was able to avoid disaster when part of his wing detached during a recent display!
How does the selection process for the Blue Angels work? What are the specific criteria you need to meet?
Experienced F/A-18 Hornet pilots are what we’re looking for. They need to have completed a minimum of 1250 jet hours. Applicants generally have completed their first full tour of duty, have done combat missions and have landed on air craft carriers quite a bit. Assuming you meet the requirements, you have to have endorsements from your commanding officer saying that he’s willing to release you from your current set of orders. If the unit is too busy or short staffed, you won’t be released from your orders and it won’t be possible for you to join the Blue Angels. Also, you need the endorsement from the detailer (bureau of personnel) saying the navy can afford to give you up from his fighter squadron.
Once you apply, you come and follow the current Blue Angels on the road to get exposure to what we actually do and what life is like day in day out, and to also socialise and interact with us to make sure they would fit into the team. We usually get 30-40 F/A-18 applicants, which is then whittled down to about 15 applicants, which are all invited to a week in July to be interviewed and spend more time with the current team. At the end of this week, the new team members are selected.
Can you tell us about the training you undertook before joining the Blue Angels?
The team is so unique and the flying we do is so different to anything you do in the fleet. Obviously it requires a similar skill set and the plane is the same, but it really does feel like learning to fly all over again. From the time the season ends in November until the next March we aim to accumulate 120 training flights before the first show. From November we fly twice a day 5 days a week, before moving to California where we fly 15 times a week, Monday to Saturday, through to the middle of March.
We start off practicing the most basic manoeuvres, which are the simpler formations, the take off manoeuvres and checkpoint formation. We then build on that from day to day until February, when we start building the display sequence and learning the loop break cross and the fleur de lie; break out manoeuvres where all 6 planes are involved. Lot of flights and a lot of hard work are the key to being show ready.
What’s your role within the team? Which position do you in?
Primarily, I’m the Lead Solo pilot, BA number 5. There are essentially 2 parts of the show, you have the diamond, made up of Blue Angels 1 to 4, which do the graceful aerial stuff, such as loops and barrel rolls. Tight formations and precision flying are their main goals.
The solo pilots do the maximum performance manoeuvres, it’s our job to show the crowd what the F/A-18 is capable of. We bring in the low, the fast and the loud and the vertical manoeuvres. As Lead Solo, I’m responsible throughout the show for adjusting the solo’s timing to offset the diamond, because the “boss” runs the diamond formation, which is a lot harder to manoeuvre around, which is why the solos have to adapt to it. I have to make sure the solos are where they need to be on time.
How strong are the g-forces you experience during some of the manoeuvres? How do you counteract that?
We do two things. Everyday fighter pilots wear G suits to help counter this problem, but the Blue Angels are mandated to work out 6 times a week, most of us usually workout every day. I’d argue that we are probably the fittest fighter squadron in the world. We do this so that we are able to physically fight through the G forces we experience during flight. The second thing we do is known as the hic manoeuvre, also known as the anti G straining manoeuvre. Essentially it’s a technique to flex certain muscle groups and to breathe in a certain way to offset the G force, so essentially try to push the blood back into your head and upper extremities.
We go to a centrifuge every year to work on these techniques, which is especially important for the new pilots. Normal fighter pilots only go through centrifuging once, but we do it every year we are on the team. At the time it feels a bit like a torture device, but it definitely prepares you for flying with the Blue Angels. If you’re not prepared it could be very dangerous.
Can you tell us about what happened during the recent display in which you lost part of your wing?
We are trying to figure out what actually happened, there is an engineering investigation being conducted as we speak. At the time I was in a high G rendezvous with the diamond to execute a manoeuvre called the line of our swoop, and that’s when the part detached from the plane. We have engineers here looking at the part that fell off so hopefully we can figure out what happened. This is why we take 7 airplanes to each show we go to; I was able to land the current plane and jump into spare plane that we keep running on the ground. The show must go on!
What do you think the future will hold for the Blue Angels? WIll there be a change of plane in the coming years?
I think recently we’ve had our challenges, I love the current airframe but it’s coming to the end of its life. The airframes that we get have limited amount of hours available on them before they are considered dead and are no longer available to be flown. Now, we are looking at the current inventory of legacy airplanes and the ones that have been identified to come to the Blue Angels. The transition to Super Hornets hasn’t been set in stone as of yet, so we’re trying to manage the hours on every airframe for as long as we possibly can. I think that in the next 7 or so years we would like to move on to the Super Hornet airframe, as there simply aren’t enough flight hours left on the legacy aircraft we currently have.
If you want to learn more about the amazing displays the Red Arrows and the Blue Angels perform, make sure you buy a copy of HIW Issue 75. We explain the technology and engineering behind aerobatic displays, and go inside the Hawk T1A and the F/A-18 Hornet. Pick up a copy of Issue 75 today from all good retailers, or order it online from the ImagineShop. If you have a tablet or smartphone, you can also download the digital version onto your iOS or Android device. To make sure you never miss an issue of How It Works magazine, make sure you subscribe today!
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