The team didn’t know it at the time in March, but the U.S. Navy Blue Angels’ entire 2020 air show season was essentially over before it began.
All 56 of the team’s trademark flight demonstration shows — from their season opener on March 14 at Naval Air Facility El Centro to their annual fall homecoming show at Naval Air Station Pensacola — have officially been canceled.
But the 140-plus people who make up the Blue Angels aren’t just packing it in and heading home, according to Navy Cmdr. Brian Kesselring, the team’s commanding officer and flight leader.
As the summer turns to fall, the Blues are trying to do what many of us have attempted to do during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that’s make the best of a bad situation. For the team, that entails training hard, earning qualifications and preparing for 2021.
“The Summer Olympics were canceled in 2020 but what do you do if you’re an Olympian, right? You get back to it,” Kesselring said. “You get back to training and you get ready for next season.”
The Blues are still roaring across the skies above Sherman Field at NAS Pensacola most days, Kesselring said, despite a now empty show schedule in 2020.
“There’s no fans, but we’re out there refining our maneuvers, honing our skill sets required to launch, recover and fly those aircrafts with the precision of the Blue Angels,” he said. “So that’s what we do pretty much every day. On top of that, our team is continuing to get qualified with Super Hornet qualifications.”
Intensive flight training aside, there isn’t a division of the Blue Angels that will be twiddling their thumbs without a task this fall as two extremely significant aircraft transitions continue to progress.
► Last set of 2020 shows canceled: Blue Angels Homecoming Air Show canceled over COVID-19 concerns
► Welcome home: Welcome home: New Fat Albert C-130 J Super Hercules arrives in Pensacola
► One for the books: First Blue Angel F/A-18 Super Hornet arrives in Pensacola to mark ‘historic’ day
The C-130J Super Hercules “Fat Albert,” which arrived in Pensacola last week, will require members of the 2021 C-130 squad to obtain their safe for flight qualifications.
“Our air crew and our maintainers are going through a qualification process that will culminate in mid-September,” Kesselring said.
The same will go for the new Super Hornets, Kesselring said, which are are currently filtering into Pensacola every few weeks. The Blues are integrating new, more powerful F/A-18 Super Hornets to replace the former Boeing F/A-18 “Legacy” Hornet fighter jets.
The goal is to have the entire fleet of 11 Super Hornets in Pensacola before the end of the year.
“As those aircrafts get those final modifications, they eventually get accepted to us every two or three weeks,” Kesselring said of the Hornets. “We’re aiming to get them all in (before the end of the year), and we got a lot of help with that. With NAVAIR, Boeing, and the specific transition team that is really working some of the inner-details of that. That’s thanks to Capt. Eric Doyle, who is really heading up that effort with our team.”
Not all was lost when it came to the actual flight demonstration portion of the Blues’ 2020 season. Between the last week of April and the middle of May, the Blues had the opportunity to fly side by side with the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds in major cities reeling with the rapid spread of the coronavirus. “America Strong,” as the initiative was dubbed, aimed to pay tribute to and uplifted the health care workers, first responders and essential personnel working tirelessly to care for the sick.
The teams flew over New York City, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, New Orleans, Washington D.C., Miami and many other cities during about a three-week span.
“We wish we would have had the opportunity to execute air shows in a normal season this year, but we’ve had a chance to re-purpose our team to support our community and other communities as well,” Kesselring said. “So that was a unique opportunity, we got a chance to work with the Thunderbirds to potentially uplift some spirits nationwide.
“But I would say spirits among the team have been relatively high in the sense that we have and are able to make a bit of a difference,” he continued. “If it’s nothing more than uplifting those from COVID-ravaged cities that we saw early on in the pandemic, and just give a little bit of happiness to them as we’re all locked inside and unable to interact in a way that we’d like to in 2020.”
In true Blue Angel fashion, the commander said, the team is trying to compartmentalize what was an unprecedented season and just focus on bettering the team ahead of the 2021 air show season, which is tentatively scheduled to begin April 10 at Naval Air Station Jacksonville.
“Hopefully as the world gets over this tragedy that is the COVID-19 pandemic, we can hit the ground running in 2021 and start touring,” Kesselring said. “Get back to executing our primary mission that the Blue Angels are known for.”
Jake Newby can be reached at [email protected] or 850-435-8538.