The squadrons are renowned for their aerial acrobatics and skilled pilots
Recent crashes, budget and equipment constraints challenge their future
Two jets from the military’s premier flight demonstration squadrons, the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds, crashed Thursday. The pilot of a Blue Angels jet was killed while practicing for a weekend air show only hours after a Thunderbird F-16 crashed following a flyover at the U.S. Air Force Academy commencement ceremony attended by President Barack Obama. The Thunderbirds pilot safely ejected before the plane went down in Colorado.
These two squadrons, renowned for their aerial acrobatics and skilled pilots, have been performing air shows across the U.S. for decades. But the double disaster on Thursday has raised questions about the purpose and histories of these elite units.
1. What’s the mission of these squadrons?
Both squadrons’ stated mission is to showcase the aircraft of their respective services while highlighting the skills and professionalism of their pilots. They are also tasked with engaging in community outreach, bolstering military recruitment and strengthening morale and esprit de corps in the services.
The squadrons perform 75-minute shows, involving 40 aerial maneuvers, and will hold up to 80 shows in a “season,” which typically starts in March and ends in November.
Retired Air Force Col. John “JV” Venable, who commanded the Thunderbirds during the 2000 and 2001 seasons, said the units are critical to fostering connections between the U.S. military and the general public.
“Our modern military has such a small footprint,” he said, “few Americans get the chance to meet members of the military much less see them in action.”
He added that the demonstrations also play a role in recruitment: “For the select few, it inspires them to serve.”
2. What does it take to be a pilot?
The pilots of both squadrons have combat experience in the skies over Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.
To qualify for the Blue Angels, one must be a career-oriented Navy or Marine Corps jet pilot with an aircraft carrier qualification and a minimum of 1,250 tactical jet flight hours.
Venable described the selection process as involving a lengthy application and multiple day-long interviews.
He said it takes a “unique” kind of pilot to apply even if they aren’t necessarily the top pilots in the military.
Venable added that once in the squadron, the operational tempo can be quite “grueling” and physically “exhausting,” saying that this was one reason some of the best pilots opted to not apply for the unit.
The Blue Angels have 16 officers, seven of whom pilot the famed jets, and 110 enlisted support personnel. The Thunderbirds have eight pilots, including six demonstration pilots, four support officers and more than 100 enlisted personnel.
3. What kinds of jets do they fly?
The Thunderbirds fly the F-16 Fighting Falcon while the Blue Angels fly the F/A-18 Hornet. The F-16 first entered service in 1979 while the F/A-18 first flew in 1978.
Venable told CNN that both squadrons use “dated aircraft, generally older models” with the most modern aircraft reserved for frontline combat missions. But he said that the units benefit from some of the best maintenance and spare parts in the services.
F-16s each cost approximately $18.8 million while the F/A-18’s more modern version, the Super Hornet, costs about $26 million per plane, according to their respective military fact sheets.
The Navy, which puts the money for the Blue Angels in its recruiting and advertising budget, included $34 million for the Blue Angels in its proposed 2017 budget.
In 2013, sequestration-related budget cuts caused the Navy and Air Force to cancel the performances for both units.
4. How often do they crash?
The Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds were launched at the dawn of the jet age in 1946 and 1953, respectively. Since then, however, there have been involved in a number of accidents.
Thursday’s crash was the first for the Blue Angels since April 2007, when Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Davis was killed when he crashed during an air show at a Marine Corps air station in Beaufort, South Carolina.
Prior to that, a Blue Angels pilot managed to eject safely from his F/A-18 Hornet before the plane went down in the Gulf of Mexico. Two Navy pilots assigned to the squadron were killed when their jet crashed in Georgia in 1999.
The Thunderbirds’ current commander, Lt. Col. Christopher Hammond, told reporters Thursday that the Thunderbird crash was the squadron’s first since September 2003, when Capt. Chris Stricklin ejected safely before his F-16 hit the ground.
That incident was the unit’s first crash since the deadliest accident in Thunderbirds history, the infamous “Diamond Crash” of 1983, which cost the lives of four Thunderbirds pilots. At the time, the Air Force concluded that a mechanical failure in one of the jets flying in the four-plane formation caused the deadly accident.
5. What does the future hold?
The recent crashes and ongoing budget and equipment constraints may prove a challenging long-term environment for these squadrons.
Both the Navy and Air Force have raised public concerns about the readiness of their aircraft.
In their April joint congressional testimony, the senior naval leadership overseeing aviation, Vice Adm. Paul Grosklags, Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Jon Davis and Rear Adm. Michael Manazir, wrote: “We continue to have lower than acceptable numbers of aircraft available to train and fight.”
Gen. David L. Goldfein, the Air Force vice chief of staff, also told Congress in March that, “25 years of continuous combat coupled with budget instability and lower-than-planned top-lines have made the Air Force one of the smallest, oldest and least ready in our history.”
There has also been some concern expressed with regard to the “flyboy” culture created in units like these, particularly after a scandal including the placement of pornography in cockpits cost the then-commander of the Blue Angels, Capt. Gregory McWherter, his job in 2014.
“It doesn’t matter who you are in the federal government, you have to prove your worth,” Venable said.
But he added that these squadrons “get you the kind of advertising that money can’t buy.”