Maintainers take pride in keeping Navy’s Blue Angels on schedule

It is the job of the maintainers who keep the Navy's Blue Angels flying year round. (Atkeison)

MYRTLE BEACH, SC — A group of maintainers dedicated in keeping the jets of the U.S. Navy Blue Angels operational for every air show are working long hours each day to ensure their aircraft perform in the highest standards.

The pilots of the Navy’s elite Flight Demonstration Squadron are the first to say that the F/A-18 Hornet jets they fly really belong to the mechanics and technicians who keep them operational each day. These unsung heroes place their job dedication and professionalism on the line prior to the departure of each aircraft.

They maintain the oldest aircraft with new parts at their home at Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida, while testing new aircraft systems prior to and during an air show to keep the high performance aircraft reliable. The maintenance and supply teams are made up of nearly a hundred enlisted men and women of the Navy and Marines who bring special job qualities to maintain the aircraft.

It is the Blue Angels’ pilots who will say these aircraft belong to the maintainers. (Atkeison)

Seven F/A-18 Hornets, each painted with a high gloss blue and gold paint job, and a C-130 Hercules transport aircraft, affectionately known as “Fat Albert”, traditionally take to the skies for each air show during the season. It is the Blue Angels maintainers who each spend three years on the squadron to keep these aircraft operational.

For every Blue Angel pilot who serves with the squadron, they credit their trust of the men and women who fix and prepare these aircraft everyday.

“We don’t look at the (jet’s) tires, we don’t look at the engines, we don’t look at anything,” Blue Angel pilot and lead solo LT Tyler Davies explained from the gusty flight line during April’s Wings Over Myrtle Beach. “We just hop in the jet, close the canopy, and put our stuff on, and the first thing we do as Blue Angels 5 and 6 is we max perform the aircraft right out of the gate.”

LT Davies, himself a former aircraft maintainer, takes pride in recognizing the work the maintenance team devotes to the jets. “Knowing how much work goes into maintaining these aircraft day-in and day-out, sun up and sun down, that’s a part of this team that means a lot to me.”

As the Atlantic breeze blew across on the flight line during the inaugural Myrtle Beach show, this aerospace reporter discussed with a few of the Navy’s most experienced engineers about the demands of their jobs — both at home and away.

His second year with Blue Angels, Aldriick Kittles is the crew chief for Blue Angels 6 jet. (Atkeison)

“I am a crew chief for the number 6 jet, the opposing solo,” Petty Officer Second Class Aldriick Kittles began with a tone of excitement in his voice. “My job is to ensure all of the functional checks with the jet is good before the pilot actually flies, and to strap him in, motivate him, and pump him up.”

The Blues assign two crew chiefs per aircraft who then rotate air show visits. These crew chiefs have trained extensively to know the F/A-18 inside and out. The maintenance team are veterans who served aboard aircraft carriers or worked at Naval Air Stations for several years before volunteering to serve with the Blues.

Nearly 40 support personnel travel two days prior to the start of the air show to get everything set up. From their support equipment to learning what hanger the squadron will work, this group of highly qualified individuals are at the show site as the Blue Angels Delta formation arrives overhead from Pensacola.

When asked if he considers this his aircraft, PO2 Kittles stepped in to say, “Yes sir, most definitely, this is my aircraft. We keep it clean — we make sure the jets look good for the show, we turn them (around), and make sure there are no issues such as leaks or cracks.”

The Blue Angels pilots, logistics, and maintainers are on the road 300 days a year. (Atkeison)

Petty Officer Roderick Stevenson is the crew chief for Blue Angel 2, and he appreciates his relationship with the jet and its pilot. “It’s a time where I understand and feel like the pilot is trusting in who I am and what I do, and what exactly his aircraft can do and what I’ve looked over to see what his aircraft can do.”

No Blue Angels flight demonstration has been cancelled due to a maintenance issue since the Blue Angels began flying in 1946. That’s a huge bragging right these maintainers have as they keep the aircraft in the air.

In 2018, the squadron will travel to show sites in Florida, California, the Carolinas, and British Columbia to name a few. The team will also perform a traditional fly over during the Naval Academy graduation ceremony on May 23.

Stevenson adds that he tries to stay relaxed the morning of a show, but to also stay alert as his team prepares the jets. “Things are different every morning and so you have to expect change. You can leave one night and everything is good, and then you awake the next morning and you have a list of things that you’re going to have to fix that morning.”

As the Hornets are put through the routines high above, on the ground, the maintenance crews observe with binoculars and later record post-flight analysis to ensure the jets are performing as expected.

Maintainer Michael Hartwell, his first year as a Blue Angel, is a member of the life support crew. (Atkeison)

PO1 Michael Hartwell, his first year on the team, works as a member of the life support crew. “It’s an honor to work on these blue and gold aircraft and to represent the men and women deployed overseas. This is a true honor.”

Hartwell explained his job duties with the Hornet includes the oxygen system and the canopy systems. “We maintain and repair the systems that support the life of the pilot. We also work on the environmental control systems,” Hartwell added.

Each 56-foot long Hornet carries 11,000 pounds of fuel to stay aloft to not only complete the 42-minute performance, but to stay aloft in the event the jets cannot land right away.

The aircraft also endures untold stress during parts of the aerobatic performance as they pull up to 7G’s (seven times one gravity). One demonstration has the jets soar upside down at over 400 m.p.h while only eighteen inches apart. Although the jets can soar past the speed of sound, the pilots of the Blue Angels keep their aircraft from going super sonic over land as not to crack windows of homes or businesses, or set off alarms on the ground.

As you listen to Stevenson, Kittles, and Hartwell discuss their jobs, you can hear the pride in their voice as they discuss how they contribute to the success of the squadron each day.

Kittle summed up his his relationship with his pilot, “The pilot walks up, salutes us and gets in, and we strap him in and he flies. And, when he comes back, handshake, check the jet and make sure it’s good again.”

(Charles A Atkeison reports on aerospace and technology. Follow his updates via social media @Military_Flight.)