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I'm flying along at 700 miles per hour in the rear seat of a blue and gold F/A 18 Hornet enjoying the ride of my life when it happens. I can't remember exactly how long the alarm was sounding, but it was there. Repetitive. I'm confused, because the pilot doesn't seem to notice, or care for that matter. Slowly my vision begins to fade to white, and for the first time in this flight, I begin to feel real fear. Am I experiencing a whiteout? A split second later I begin to sense people talking around me. I hear them, yet I can't quite make out what they're saying. That's when I notice the same repetitive alarm, still ringing in my ear. Bleeeeep, Bleeeeep, Bleeeep. As I begin to open my eyes it all starts to make sense. The cool-blue haze of the television against the pale tan wall seals the deal. I roll over and silence the alarm clock. I lie there, in my hotel bed for a second, and then sit up with a bolt with a smile on my face. I've dreamt about flying with the Blue Angels countless times in my life, and I'm usually pretty sad to let the dream go when I wake. But today, I get to spend the day with the world's premiere precision flying team. The United States Navy's Blue Angels.
Even though I couldn't fall asleep until well after midnight the night before my dream ride in #7, I roll out of bed at 0415 almost with a skip in my step. The normal morning routine (shower, shave, tooth brushing) goes by in a blur, and before I know it, I'm staring at my heavily packed photo-backpack. That's when the feeling hit me. A combination of fear, self-doubt, and shyness all rolled up in a warm blanket of total excitement. The last time I felt this was while standing in the sacristy during the final minutes before my wedding. I snap out of my daze, and refocus on my camera bag. Camera bodies? Check. Fully charged batteries? Check. Wide, tele, and super-tele lens? Check. Freshly formatted compact flash cards? Check. I went thru this whole procedure the night before, yet I can't help myself from doing it all over again. I zip up the bag, strap on the tripod and head for the door.
It's dark outside, with a cool fresh sea breeze in the air as I steer my rental car down South Navy Blvd. All the while, trying to plan the day's shots in my head. I have to force myself to stop thinking about it, and just shoot what comes natural. I consider myself to be a photojournalistic, natural photographer. I don't like setting up for shots, or using complex lighting. Just give me my camera, and if I see something that piques my interest, I try my hardest to capture it the way it is. I see the NAS Pensacola base entrance up ahead and that familiar feeling grows again in the pit of my stomach, but thankfully, I'm at the gate before I can think more. After the appropriate checks, I'm though and on the base heading towards Blue Angels headquarters. It's 0520-dark, and after thinking I made a wrong turn a few times, I finally pull into the parking lot, park, and step out of the car. The smell of the ocean had been replaced by the occasional waft of JP5 and other machine oils. I gather my gear from the trunk and head towards the fence. The process at the main gate took a little longer then expected so MC3 Julia Casper was already waiting for me with an extra set of hearing protection...of course in beautiful Blue Angels yellow.
We had just stepped thru the fence, when I hear the first spool of a jet engine. I'd reported on base for morning turns, and they had just begun. As Julia and I head out towards the flight line, she informs me, very pleasantly but with a slight underlying sternness one would expect from a professional, that 1. I am allowed to move where I would like with the exception of a few areas. And 2, that if she asks me to move, I would be wise follow her request. She only had to tell me once. We proceed closer, and one by one I hear more jet engines coming to life. For those familiar with military jets, or air shows, the high-pitched whine and slight clicks are almost music like. But what you're really waiting for is the guttural, low growl from the engine as it comes up to speed. I find myself mesmerized by what I'm seeing and for several minutes I simply stand and watch. The smell of jet exhaust grows, as one by one the Blue Angel jets are brought to life by a ballet of crew men and women. Each person moving with a purpose and precision that only countless hours of drilling can create. Julia finally brings me back to reality by asking me in my ear, ok, yelling into my ear, what I was hoping to "capture" this morning. Kindly, offering to help put me into the best position. I explain that I just need her to let me know before I take a step in the wrong direction. I pull the camera out of my bag, slap on the telephoto lens, double check the settings and off we go.
If you've ever watched the beginning rituals of a Blue Angels performance, you know the level of precision movements each of the crew are capable of performing. I was honestly surprised to see them all, at "still pitch black early," moving with those clock-like movements. Each step, hand placement, and action was well rehearsed and it shows. I give up on trying to capture the feeling in mid-speed photography. Even with an ISO of 6400 they're simply too fast, and too crisp. I quickly set up my tri-pod and start shooting some long exposures. Switching between anywhere from 5 to 30 seconds. Trying hard to convey the feeling of motion, and for a layman like myself, the chaos that's on display before me. On one of the longer exposures, I notice stars in the background on the camera's display, and for the first time, I look up. A beautiful spread of stars above me, for a moment, take me back to my boy scout camping days. Thanks to the wide-angle lens, I was able to capture those stars in a few more of the pictures I snapped that morning.
Right around the time the first hints of daylight are creeping over the horizon, all of the engines had successfully been run and tested, and one by one they're shut down. We remove our hearing protection, restoring all 5 senses and Julia lets me know that once all the engines are down we are allowed to approach the jets more closely. As the refueling truck makes itís was onto the tarmac, Julia escorts me closer to watch some of the life support crew replenish the O2 tanks. It's there, now in relative quiet, that Iím able to gather a sense of how close the crew is with each other. I hear not only work related discussion, but the fun reverie of a team. Even with a group this large, you can't help but sense the teamwork. For those of you who have seen it, be it in a sports team, or a group of co-workers, you'll agree that it's very hard to explain....but you know it when you see it, and this group definitely has it. We move around, always staying out of the way of the working crew as they finish refueling, and performing the last tasks of the morning. The sky is a pretty shade of purple as the last of the crew heads inside...but I keep Julia out in the cool air as I wait for some shots of the jets in the sunrise. 30 minutes or so later, we're finished and begin to head towards the building. I find myself getting excited to step inside history and walk the halls.
We step inside, and the building is as alive inside, as it was outside an hour ago. Julia escorts me around, pointing out different departments within the Blue Angels organization. As we turn a corner into a stairwell, I unintentionally slow down and lag behind. Before my eyes is Blue Angels history, as told by the annual lithographs that the team produces. Each one a work of own in its own right, but when combined it's almost hard to know which one to look at first or next. My eyes just end up darting around, trying to look at each one at the same time. I see Julia smiling from around the corner, so I pick up the pace a little bit. As I reach the second floor, I'm presented with another wall of pictures. Not lithographs like before, but head shots of each member of the Blue Angels team. Each one organized into their respective groups, a fitting tribute to the sheer size of the team. While the pilots tend to be the most public facing, there are around 25 other members per pilot standing proudly next to them. Julia shows me around the second floor, which includes the famous ready-room (no photography allowed) and we finally enter the Public Affairs office. I was gladly given some desk space, where I quickly began to back up my memory cards on my laptop, as well as to take a sneak peek at a few of the shots...hoping that they looked as nice on a large monitor as on the 3" screen of my camera.
It was here, that I have the opportunity to meet MCC Kurt Anderson, MC1 Joseph Reynoso, MC2 Jen Blake, and MCSN AJ Johnson. Most of the names I was already familiar with, and if you're a fan of the Blue Angels on Facebook, then youíre probably familiar as well. They've produced some amazing shots of the team, and several of those pieces hang nicely on the walls of their office. Today is a practice day, so there's a lot of activity in the room as well as everywhere in the building. I do my best to simply stay out of the way, and watch the well tuned machine work. It's not much longer before MCC Anderson is letting me know it's time to head outside to watch the practice demo. I pack up and grab my gear and head downstairs....lagging behind just a little once again to admire the lithos in the stairwell.
Stepping out into the sunlight was a bit startling. My eyes quickly adjust to the light to discover a decent sized crowd of invitees gathered to watch the day's practice. Kurt escorts me into the public area and explains that I'll be alone for the duration of the demo, but to remain in the specified area. I set up for the demo with my super-telephoto lens and don't have to wait very long before the pilots step out of the building. Smiling and waving to the crowd as they make their way to their jets. Moving with a swagger of confidence that only comes from being a fighter pilot. They begin their performance, and as always, put on a fantastic show. Itís always fun to watch others in the crowd who have never seen a demo before. While I wasnít looking at them, I heard quite a few startled screams during the first sneak pass, followed by giddy laughter, and then more screams a split-second later brought on by the second sneak pass. Before I know it I see the ground crew heading back out onto the tarmac signaling the demo is about finished. As always, they move in precise and coordinated steps. One by one the jets land, and taxi in. The ground crew secures the planes, the pilots exit, march towards the crowd, salute, and then begin forming up for photos with the dayís VIPs.
AJ escorts me back inside, and we chat as he works quickly to download, and print the VIP pictures. The efficiency is impressive. Sadly, after backing up my memory cards once again (canít be too safe,) it was time to leave. I arranged a start time for the next morning, and then thanked just about everyone I could see before being escorted to the gate Iíd entered only 5 hours ago. As I walked away, I caught myself looking back and smiling several times. What a day it had been...but the best part was...I would get to do it all over again the next day.
As I expected, I woke up the next morning just as excited as I was for the first day. The only difference was, my feeling of self-doubt and shyness had subsided. This morning, was nothing but sheer excitement. I quickly run through the same mourning routine as the day before, and just an hour after the alarm went off, I was walking up to the entrance gate at the Blue Angels facility. This morning was going to be a little bit different, because the team was flying out to Jacksonville for the upcoming air show. MC3 Julia Casper would be traveling with the team, so this morning I had the honor of being escorted by MC2 Jen Blake. The crew would still perform a morning turn, but rather then fly a demo, they would load up Fat Albert and then head out.
As Jen and I stepped onto the flight line at 0530, the first jet engines were being started. The crew moving about with the same precision as the day before, still impressed me.
After the turns, it was time to give Fat Albert the attention he was due. I wasnít able to photograph him the day before, because he was towed off for a shower. This day was different. There he sat, sparkling clean in the early pre-dawn light. Bert was already loaded with all the equipment and spare parts the crew might need for the next air show, but there was still plenty of crew and other items to get on board. As Jen and I were chatting during one of the long exposures, a crewman came along in a Tug, pulling the crews luggage in a rack. The scene was reminiscent of luggage arriving at a commercial airline. The crewman approached Bert in a wide sweeping arc, carefully pulling close to the door. In a matter of minutes, the luggage was on, and the rest of the crew was starting to make their way onto Bert for departure. The sun continued to rise, casting pretty shades of orange, pink and purple across the sky and clouds as everyone boarded. There was a sort of jovial step to their walk and talk, and I could tactfully sense how well everyone got along, and how excited they were to be departing for another air show.
It wasnít much longer that the last crewman made his/her way onto Fat Albert. One by one the turboprop engines came began to come to life. First the engines themselves, then, the props themselves spinning came up to speed. The sound frequencies fluctuating as the RPMs, and pitch. Almost immediately after all four engines and props were turning at speed, Jen prompted us to move. Informing me that where we were standing was about to get it by some high-speed prop wash. To be honest, the little boy in me wanted to stay there and feel the force of the hot air and wind. But that lasted only a second or two, as I followed Jen to the right, and then in front of Fat Albert. It was a little intimidating as Bert taxied forward toward us. Even though I knew I was safe, seeing that big, beautiful C-130 coming towards me through a camera lens made me feel like he was only inches from my nose. A split second later, he made the turn to the left and headed out towards the runway. It was there that I got a little taste of what Iíd hoped for a few minutes before. The hot jet and prop wash hit us like a mid-summer Arizona breeze. Not horribly forceful, but a more pleasant way, almost as if it was Fat Albertís way of saying goodbye. They taxied along to the runway, and a couple of minutes later, I hear all four engines roar up to full power. As Bert rotated into the morning sky, I could see vapor spiraling off of all four props. A few minutes later, all was quiet on the flight line.
Jen was needed for a meeting, so MC1 Joseph Reynoso escorted me for a few minutes while I shot pictures of the main building and hanger in the morning light. He then led me back inside and into the Public Affairs department. There, I of course backed up my memory cards yet again, and had some time to talk with the Public Affairs team before the pilots departed. It was nice to have some light discussion about photography, web sites, hot Doritos, and the Blue Angels in general. I canít remember the last time I felt so comfortable with a group of people I had just met. Faster then I had hoped, we heard word over the radio that the pilots were only a few minutes from departing. Jen gave me the signal, and I quickly gathered up my gear and we headed back out to the flight line.
We werenít standing there for very long, before the pilots stepped out of the building, and started making their way to their planes. As they passed by us, smiles, casual conversation, and waves of good bye were given. In an exercise that is not often seen by the public, each pilot performed a walk-around of his own plane. Checking and double-checking each critical point before climbing the ladder and sitting down and strapping in with the help of their crew chief. During a performance, and in a demonstration of incredible trust, the support crew performs the walk around for the pilots. After each pilot was seated and strapped in, the support crew made their way swiftly away from the jets. Some with a little more displayed humor then others. A few seconds later, all the canopies begin to close simultaneously as the all too familiar sound of the jet engines starting up signals me to put on my hearing protection.
Once all the jets are up and running, they begin their pre-flight tests. It was awesome to stand in front of Boss, watching the rudders go left, right, and back. The ailerons flapping up, down, and back to center as each control surface is checked and rechecked. All at once, the smoke systems are tested, throwing up a huge cumulonimbus-sized cloud of smoke. In too short of time, the team was ready to taxi. Boss starts to go first, and though I felt close to Bert, it felt like the tip of #1 was going to poke me in the eye. Of course, I was wrong in my feeling, as Boss turns to his left and salutes the team, and chief. One by one, each jet taxies out of their respective spot, and follows along behind boss, each showing their gratitude by saluting the crew. A few seconds later, Jen and I are hit by a blast of hot jet wash from all 6 jets. Jen turned her head away to protect from getting dirt in her eyes, but no way was I missing a second. I watch as the team taxis away, heading towards the runway. After only a few minutes later, I heard the sound of eight jet engines spooling up to full power. I watch as the diamond rolls by, in full afterburner, screaming down the runway. Iím not sure, but I think I even held my hand up in a wave goodbye as the four gleaming F-18s rolled up and into the sky. A moment later, I hear the two solos come up to burner and go screaming by. I feel a twinge of sadness creep over me as I watch all six jets fade away into the sky. The feeling grows as I lose sight, but yet can still hear the team getting farther away with each passing second. My time in Pensacola was winding down.
I head back inside with Jen, where I snap off a few more pictures for myself and then begin packing up all of my gear. Before I know it, I find myself looking at a fully packed camera bag, and Iíve run out of excuses in my head to stay any longer. My mother raised me to never over-stay your welcome, and this was definitely one of those times where I didnít want to come even close to that. So I got up, thanked everyone over and over, and was escorted to the gate by Jen. During the walk out, I found myself trying to take a mental video of everything I saw. Trying to force myself to remember every detail, the colors, the smells, the people, everything. I thanked Jen once again, and started towards the car. Turning back every 20 paces or so to look at the hanger, wishing I was at the beginning of this trip, rather then the end. I get to the car and begin making my way back to my hotel. I have a perma-grin plastered on my face as I drive out of the base gate. I just spent two days with the Blues. I continue on, smiling, as I relish the fact that the memories forged during the past two days will stay with me for a lifetime.
Iíd like to thank MCC Kurt Anderson, MC3 Julia Casper, MC2 Jen Blake, MC1 Joseph Reynoso, MCSN AJ Johnson, LCDR Amy Tomlinson, and every other member of the Blue Angels team. The opportunity to step behind the scenes, and do my best to document all of the hard work each of you do day in and day out, was a HUGE honor. One that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
You can see more of Kevin's photos on his website.