The Wind Beneath the Blue Angels’ Wings
By Al Parker | June 25, 2022
Crowds gather along Grand Traverse Bay to gaze into the sky for the biggest beach bash of the year. A voice shouts, “There they are!” Cameras rise in unison, and the thundering roar of the F-18 Super Hornets announce the bold arrival of the U.S. Navy Blue Angels.
While Blue Angels pilots get most of the public’s attention during the Cherry Festival Air Show, there’s a behind-the scenes team of dedicated personnel that keep those high-tech aircraft flying high, and Michigan native U.S. Navy Senior Chief Amber Gibson is one of them.
“I enlisted in the Navy right after high school in 2006,” says the Muskegon Oakridge graduate in a phone interview from Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida, home of the Blue Angels Squadron. “I really didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew I didn’t want to waste time and money on college. A recruiter came to our class, and I made up my mind to enlist.”
Gibson joined the Blue Angels team in 2019 and underwent a long process to get selected. “I was in Bahrain and saw online that they had openings, so I applied,” she recalls.
Applicants go through extensive screening that saw Gibson travel from Bahrain to Pensacola for a week-long interview process. Once selected, she spent about 90 days of training in Pensacola to learn about the jets and all that goes into the making of a Blue Angels air show. These training sessions take place during the Blue Angels non-show months—November to March.
As a logistics specialist, Gibson is responsible for ordering vital supplies and scheduling parts shipments for the gleaming blue and gold F-18 Super Hornets. There’s even a saying in the Navy: “Logistics Specialists keep it all running.”
This year, the squadron has scheduled 34 shows, including the Thunder Over Michigan show in Ypsilanti on July 16-17. It’s a huge matter of pride that the Blue Angels have never canceled an air show due to a maintenance problem.
“I’m really excited to come to Traverse City,” says Gibson. “It’s very beautiful there. The scenery is gorgeous. My family and friends are coming up for the show. I’m looking forward to cherries and fudge.”
It won’t be Gibson's first trip to northern Michigan. “I’ve been to Traverse City before and to Charlevoix,” she recalls. “Went to the Weathervane and enjoyed stopping at farm markets and picking up cherries.”
During her 16-year naval career, Gibson has been deployed to Japan; San Diego; Naples, Italy; the Great Lakes Training Center in Illinois; and Bahrain. Later this year she’ll leave the Blue Angels and be deployed to Rota, Spain.
“I’ve been very fortunate to travel so much during my naval career,” she says. “I’m very grateful to the Navy.”
After 16 years, is retirement looming in the near future?
“No, I still love the Navy and expect to go on beyond 20 years,” she predicts with a smile in her voice.
The Rest of the Angel Team
The Blue Angels’ maintenance and support team is comprised of approximately 100 enlisted sailors and Marines. While the Blue Angels pilots do every air show, alternating crews of about 45 travel to each show site. Each enlisted member covers about one-third of the shows during their three-year tour with the squadron.
In addition to the enlisted personnel, 17 officers serve with the Blue Angels. Each year, the team typically selects three jet pilots, two support officers, and one Marine Corps C-130 pilot to relieve departing members.
The Chief of Naval Air Training selects the Blue Angels Commanding Officer, “The Boss,” who must have at least 3,000 tactical jet flight hours and have commanded a tactical jet squadron. Navy Capt. Brian Kesselring, who joined the Blue Angels in 2019, is the current “Boss” and flies the Number 1 jet.
Pilots with an aircraft carrier qualification and a minimum of 1,250 tactical jet hours are eligible for jets Number 2 through 7, and to date there have been 260 Blue Angels demonstration pilots. Officers typically serve two years with the team, then return to their fleets.
Catch the Blue Angels at the National Cherry Festival July 2 and July 3, 2022. The airshow starts at 1pm with the U.S. Navy Blue Angels taking to the sky at approximately 3pm. Get more details at cherryfestival.org.
The history of the Blue Angels dates back to 1946 when Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Chester Nimitz, had a vision to create a flight exhibition team to raise the public’s interest in naval aviation and boost Navy morale.
During the 1940s, the team thrilled audiences with precision combat maneuvers in the F6 Hellcat, the F8 Bearcat, and the F9 Panther. During the ’50s, they refined their shows with maneuvers in the F9 Cougar and F-11 Tiger and introduced the first six-plane delta formation, which is still flown to this day. By the end of the ’60s, the Blue Angels were flying the F-4 Phantom.
In 1974, they took the throttle of A-4 Skyhawks, a smaller and lighter aircraft with a tighter turning radius, allowing for a more dynamic flight demonstration. In 1986, the squadron unveiled the F/A-18 Hornet, followed by the F/A-18 Super Hornet in 2021 as the Blue Angels celebrated their 75th anniversary.
The Blue Angels name was picked by the original team when they were planning a show in New York in 1946 and one of them saw the famous Blue Angel nightclub in a magazine.
An estimated 11 million spectators view the squadron during air shows annually. Additionally, Blue Angels crew members visit some 50,000 people at hospitals and schools during a show season, March through November.
The closest the Blue Angels fly near each other is 18 inches during the Diamond 360 Maneuver.
The highest the Blue Angels soar is about 15,000 feet during the Vertical Roll and the lowest is about 50 feet during a Sneak Pass maneuver.
The fastest speed during an air show is about 700 mph during a Sneak Pass, while the slowest is about 120 mph.
The basic price of a F/A-18 Super Hornet is about $67.4 million. (Additional weapons-related gear varies according to the configuration and the use of the aircraft and can significantly raise the total cost.)
Empty of all ordinance and crew, the Super Hornet weighs about 32,100 pounds, just over 16 tons.
Each Blue Angel aircraft is capable of being returned to combat duty aboard an aircraft carrier within 72 hours.