Still Flying High
A look at how the Blue Angels are still playing a key role in their community
Across America on most weekends between March and November there is a similar scene in at least five cities. Airports shut down and park 10,000 cars in the dirt. Military bases open their gates wide and ask the public to come on board. At the beach, there's something louder than a speedboat.
So what is it that brings millions of people together each year? The answer is in the jet fuel wafting in the air - and in the gleam of each pair of skyward-turned eyes.
Air shows, fly-overs and aerial demonstrations bring millions of fans to air fields across North America each year. The Blue Angels, the U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron, boast 11 million viewers annually. Any given weekend between March and November, cities close down their skies to commercial air traffic and open them to these aerobatic presenters - at least until the rumor of sequestration became reality.
On April 9, 2013, the Blue Angels joined all other military demonstration teams in announcing the cancellation of its air show season. A press release from Commander, Naval Air Forces stated the Navy believed there was value in the Blue Angels demonstration team, however, the current budget situation required the Navy to fund forward-operating forces first - those ships, squadrons, Sailors and Marines overseas. The release mirrored Defense policy, which stated "outreach events can only be supported with local assets at no cost to the government."
Many civilian air shows have still gone on as scheduled, however, the world's second-oldest-flying demonstration squadron, who had been prepared to fly 36 air shows in 2013, has not been a part of them.
Despite the cancellation of air shows, the Blue Angels mission has not stopped, said Cmdr. Tom Frosch, the Blue Angels' commanding officer and flight leader, but it has changed.
"We can be disappointed or we can look at this as a challenge," he said. "Every team faces some unique challenge. This is ours. We're going to be the team who's known for continuing the legacy."
The Blue Angels mission is to enhance Navy and Marine Corps recruiting and credibly represent Navy and Marine Corps aviation to the United States and its armed forces to America and other countries as international ambassadors of goodwill.
The team achieves this mission, Frosch said, not just by flying aerial demonstrations, but also by reaching out to the community and acting as role models for the youth of America.
As one of the Navy's large-scale and multifaceted recruiting commands, the Blue Angels offer both recruiting advertisement for the Navy and an inspiration for youth.
Although this year has brought challenges the team has not faced before, according to Frosch, the future looks bright.
"I think it's going to be great," he added. "We'll make sure our leadership and the country knows why we exist, we're going to look for more ways to enhance recruiting and reach out to the public."
The Blue Angels are a face for the Navy, and something that ties the Pensacola community together, said Frosch.
"I often have people tell me 'I met some of your Sailors and Marines and they were just so personable. They were so nice, they went out of their way to help us with this,'" Frosch said with pride.
The proof Pensacola is a community with a lot of pride in its military, Frosch said, is visible through the retired Blue Angels jets around Pensacola: the Blue Angel-themed Pelican statue downtown, and something more - a campaign, led by Lee, to raise millions of dollars from the community to help the Blue Angels fly.
"It's a testament to what the community thinks about the team and about the Navy," Frosch said.
In an effort to thank the Pensacola community for their support of the team, and also to continue their mission, Frosch said Blue Angels team members have increased their school visits and community service events in the area. Since the April sequester, the Blue Angels spent more than 1,500 hours at more than 350 events in the community.
The Blue Angel community service efforts have not been overlooked by Pensacola residents, said Lee.
"The community loves having the Blues here," said Buck Lee, Santa Rosa Island Authority executive director and air show coordinator. "The Blues live here, their spouses work here, their kids go to school here and they volunteer here."
Team members volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, a local food bank, at schools, special events and more. They engage in speaking events at schools and perform volunteer work almost daily.
"This is an opportunity for us to reconnect with some organizations around Pensacola," said Frosch. "And to build some relationships that will last for years to come."
The Blue Angels will continue to train to maintain flying proficiency until further notice at its home station in Pensacola, Fla. The Navy intends to continue aerial demonstrations in the future as the budget situation permits.