As the four sleek blue and yellow F/A-18s execute the slow, graceful barrel roll in front of the gaping crowd, two other Blue Angels' jets circle lazily in the sky three miles away awaiting their cue to race toward center stage.
"Can you take a mark?" Lt. Matt Seamon asks.
"I can take a mark," replies Lt. John Foley.
"Stand by. . . . Mark it!" Seamon says.
Foley, 31, of Laguna Niguel, recounts what happens next in order to execute one of 25 aerial stunts that the six-plane Blue Angel team will perform at the El Toro Air Show Saturday and Sunday:
Upon hearing "Mark it!" Foley resets the stopwatch attached to the cockpit glare shield and pushes the stick forward. The jet fighter dives urgently. At this point, he has only 20 seconds to reach the point to begin a precision maneuver that will culminate in the two jets shrieking within a plane-length of each other in front of the air show crowd below. A half-second can mean the difference between a perfect and imperfect maneuver.
By now, the two solo F/A-18s are closing on each other at about 1,000 m.p.h. In less than a half minute, they will cover the six miles between them.
Foley strains through the canopy to find a small dot in the sky that is Seamon's F/A-18 rushing straight at him. He has only a few seconds to spot the other jet--or abort the maneuver entirely--before closely passing the other jet.
"His contract is to be on that flight line at, say, 100 feet altitude," Foley explained in an interview. "My contract is to miss him."
The maneuver, called a "solo opposing knife-edge pass," always brings gasps from the crowd as the two planes screech past. To the people below, it looks as if the two aircraft fly through each other.
The Blue Angels bring their awe-inspiring aerobatics to the sky over El Toro this weekend. The precision fliers also will make a special appearance Friday for handicapped children and other special guests.
Foley, a former advanced flight instructor at the El Toro Marine base, is in his first season flying with the Blue Angels. He and the other pilots--flight leader Cmdr. Greg Wooldridge, Lt. Cmdr. Lee Grawn, Lt. Pat Rainey, Lt. Cmdr. Dave Inman and Seamon--will appear at 68 air shows at 39 places in the United States. Since the Blue Angels first flew in 1946, the pilots and their familiar blue jets with yellow stripes, lettering and numbers have been seen by 230 million people.
The team members, based in Pensacola, Fla., fly the F/A-18 Hornet, a multipurpose war plane built by McDonnell Douglas and Northrop. It is used by the Navy and the Marine Corps and has won the praise of military leaders for its role in the Persian Gulf War.
The air show features the graceful, aerobatic "diamond" formations, which bring four jets within 36 inches of each other as they fly in the tight formations. The No. 5 and 6 planes, the solos (piloted by Seamon and Foley), demonstrate the high performance capabilities of Navy pilots and their aircraft at speeds of up to 600 m.p.h. At one point in the show, all six jets will maneuver together in the familiar delta formation.
The loops, dives, rolls, climbs and crosses are all performed with split-second precision. There is little room for error. As the four-plane "diamond" formation finishes one maneuver, the solo planes appear.
"We like it to go bang, bang, bang, one maneuver after the other," Foley said.
The show circuit begins in March and runs through mid-November. It is punishing, both physically and mentally. The Blue Angel pilots--who fly for two years with the team and then return to regular Navy and Marine duties--are on the road for 300 days a year, moving from one hotel room to another, basically living out of a suitcase.
"I think it is the greatest job in the world," Foley said, at first avoiding a question about whether he was disappointed because he was unable to go to the Persian Gulf and do what he was trained to do--fly off aircraft carriers.
Sure, he said, when the conflict started in the Middle East, "I wanted to be over there so bad I could taste it." He said many of his friends were in the Gulf, and he has spent many years training to do what the Navy pilots were doing in Kuwait and Iraq. "I really wish I could have been there, but it wasn't an option. From that standpoint I was disappointed, but if there was ever a consolation, being a Blue Angel was it."
He added: "You could pay me anything . . . . If you were to write me an open ticket and say 'you can have any job in the world and we'll give you any amount of money you want,' I would be doing what I am doing now. It is just that good."
The team will go to Sacramento after the show Sunday. The pilots' support crew will accompany them aboard a C-130, affectionately called "Fat Albert." The Blue Angels and company travel more than 140,000 miles during a season.
Sixteen officers and 100 enlisted persons are assigned to the Blue Angels. All are volunteers and are not paid any extra for the duty.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Chester W. Nimitz ordered the formation of a flight demonstration team at the close of World War II to promote public interest in naval aviation. In 1950, the Blue Angels were temporarily disbanded and sent to the aircraft carrier Princeton as the Korean conflict heated up. They moved their headquarters to Pensacola from Corpus Christi, Tex., in 1954.
Before joining the Blue Angels in October 1989 as a narrator, Foley served stints as an instructor pilot and a landing signal officer. He flew combat missions in the Persian Gulf in April 1988 when the United States sunk warships and bombed oil platforms in retaliation for Iran's placing mines in the gulf, one of which damaged the U.S. destroyer Samuel B. Roberts.
He said he first got the itch to fly when, as a kid, his parents took him to an air show and he got his first glimpse at the streaking fighter jet. "I remember looking up at that plane and I knew I wanted to fly."
His mother, Lee Foley of Laguna Niguel, recalled times when her son used to slip away in airports to find commercial pilots to chat with. His bedroom was an aviation museum of sorts, housing every model airplane known to man. The small aircraft dangled from the ceiling by strings and were perched on the dresser, night stand and desk.
After those days when he sat in his bedroom building model airplanes and dreaming of the day he would fly, Foley became a football and wrestling star in high school in Palos Verdes. He later won an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, where he started as a defensive cornerback and safety on the football team. He graduated in 1982 with a commission and degree in mechanical engineering. Foley received his wings in 1984. Much of his military career has been spent at sea on aircraft carriers, flying the A-7E Corsair and the F/A-18 Hornet.
"Flying with the Blue Angels is every bit as challenging as I expected," Foley explained. "The concentration level is even more demanding than I thought . . . and it is physically punishing."
He likened the concentration of precision flying to that needed during the times he played football against the University of Michigan before a stadium filled with 100,000 fans. "When you come out of the tunnel you are hit by the impact of all those people. You can feel the crowd. But when the game starts they become just a blur in your peripheral. It was as if there was no one there."
Same goes for flying. "You walk to your plane and see all those spectators. Once you get in the airplane it is all business, and it all goes away until you land again. Then you think, 'That was pretty neat,' " Foley said.
He can sweat away five pounds in a 30-minute flight, pulling 7 1/2 to 8 Gs (7 1/2 to 8 times more than the force of gravity) as many as 20 times during a performance. Asked what it feels like to pull 8 Gs, Foley jokingly compared it to "getting tackled" by former Los Angeles Rams defensive lineman Merlin Olsen.
To build up a tolerance for the heavy G load, the pilots work out daily with weights to strengthen their upper bodies. This allows them to tense certain muscles and keep the blood in the head from rushing to other parts of their bodies during fast, hard turns.
"It is demanding both physically and mentally," Foley said. "Not only do you have to fly low to the ground but also maintain situational awareness of the other aircraft. And imagine doing this upside down while traveling over 600 miles an hour 100 feet from the ground."
The maneuvers, even in this computer age, are all done visually. How close the pilots come to each other on any given day depends on the what maneuver they are performing, visibility, the winds and how early they can visually pick up each other.
Their concentration has to be finely honed. For example, as Foley and other other pilot speed toward each other in the "solo opposing knife edge pass" maneuver--even before they catch sight of each other--they must synchronize their approach. "I'm working a little late," Foley will tell Seamon if he is is running a half-second or less behind. If he is behind by a full second or more, he'll say on the radio, "I'm way late."
The seconds before Foley actually spots the other pilot are even more tense. "Normally, I see movement," Foley said. "I know where he is coming from . . . (but) it is very, very small. It is a very uncomfortable feeling if I can't find him because you realize how fast you are approaching . . . . I really only have four to five seconds to pick him up."
High mountain ranges can make it difficult to find the approaching aircraft. If he can't pick it up visually, Foley may ask Seamon to trail some grayish smoke from his jet. If he still can't see him, Foley, for safety reasons, will peel off to safe air space. Instead of two planes crossing in front of the crowd, only one will scream by.
To help the Blue Angels maintain their physical condition, a full-time flight surgeon travels with the team, helping the pilots with their training program and their diets. "Every day we are working out and flying. Hopefully, we can eat right," Foley said, noting that the pilots attend many social gatherings, at which he has "eaten more Swedish meatballs than I care to tell you."
Foley said team members are close and trust each other implicitly. After each performance they spend hours talking about the show.
"Most people don't understand that after we fly we spend another two hours watching video and debriefing," he said. Each show is filmed by a member of the team, and the pilots go through the film, sometimes frame by frame.
But first, after each air show, Foley climbs from the cockpit and heads to the crowd line to see his favorite fans--the children.
"I see the look in their eyes," Foley said in a recent telephone interview. "It is probably the same look I had in my eyes a few years ago."
The children patiently hold out programs, airplane models, shirts and even their hands and arms for Foley's autograph. He has signed his name thousands of times. The kids ask him and the other Blue Angels about flying upside down and what it feels like. How fast does the jet go? How long does it take to become a Navy pilot? Why did you join the Navy and not the Air Force? Lately, they ask if he was in the Persian Gulf.
"No doubt we are in the public's eye, but we're not rock stars or somebody who's famous. We are not actors or movie stars, but normal Navy pilots who happen to be in a visible situation. We fly the same maneuvers that they teach every Navy pilot.
"We just fly them a little closer and a little lower to the ground."
The Blue Angels currently fly the McDonnell Douglas F/A 18-Hornet powered by twin General Electric F404-GE-400 engines. This front-line carrier-borne strike aircraft is serving both the Navy and Marines, from aircraft carriers and land-based facilities.
During a typical demonstration fun, the first four aircraft fly tight-formation maneuvers, while two soloists wow the crowd with their choreographed aerial ballet. For the grand finale, all six aircraft come together in a single delta formation.
An applicant wishing to volunteer for the Blue Angels must have served at least four years in the Navy or Marine Corps and have accumulated 1,500 flight hours in tactical jet aircraft. Two or three new members are cycled into the team each year. A team member usually spends two years as a Blue Angel pilot.
GENERAL ELECTRIC F404-GE-400 ENGINE
The F404 engine, considered one of the brightest aspects of the F/A-18 Hornet program, has proved to be almost fault-free. The F404 is an incredibly fast responding engine that goes from idle to full after-burner in about three seconds.