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Blue Angels' Baltimore preparations reveal demands on pilots

C-130 helps support Blue Angels in Baltimore, puts on show of its own

By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun

4:05 PM EDT, June 16, 2012

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The plane flies a mere five feet above the ground, gaining speed until it reaches a velocity of 200 mph. It lurches skyward at a 45-degree angle, three times the climb of a commercial aircraft and sharp enough to send ripples through the flesh in your face.

At 1,000 feet, it levels off so suddenly it creates a state of weightlessness. Only seat belts keep everyone aboard from floating to the ceiling.

Ernie, a Lockheed Martin C-130 aircraft with a 132-foot wingspan, is aloft and soaring above the Patapsco River on a sunny afternoon. The takeoff was a success. The final rehearsal for the Blue Angels air show in the Star-Spangled Sailabration is under way.

As anyone who's been listening — or has simply looked up from time to time — knows by now, the Angels are in town. The blue-and-gold jets of the U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron, as it's officially known, have been plying the skies above Baltimore since Thursday, practicing the team's 45-minute precision airshow twice, then executing it Saturday as it will for the last time Sunday.

These spry F-18s, of course, not the cargo planes, are the stars of the show. They've already provided plenty of entertainment for area thrill seekers and aviation fans, showing off such maneuvers as the Diamond 360 (four of the familiar F-18s locked in a tight, diamond formation) and the Diamond Tuck-Under Break (each pilot rolling his aircraft 270 degrees, then falling out of the formation in a cascading effect).

An hour before the team's final run-through Friday, more than 200 onlookers were gathered at Martin State Airport, temporary home to the jets, to see the team of six elite pilots take them up.

"This is fantastic to watch," said John Rowe, a machinist at the airport whose boss gave him and a colleague, Sean Dorney, the afternoon off to watch. "This has been causing so much excitement one guy [down the block] ran his car off the road."

The squadron first rolled out Ernie, one of the cargo planes that can lug 45,000 pounds of Angels' gear — and that open Blue Angel air shows by performing 10-minute demonstrations of the C-130's best combat capabilities. (The squadron's most celebrated C-130, "Fat Albert," is in Texas undergoing repairs.)

The two pilots of the plane executed the 45-degree "low transition" takeoff, several 60-degree bank turns and a landing that brought Ernie to a halt across a span of only 1,000 feet. Any C-130 can perform such maneuvers, which are designed to get crews in and out of combat zones under fire.

The demonstration proved too gut-wrenching for a few of the civilians invited on the ride.

"Don't ever eat a sandwich an hour before one of these flights," an ashen-faced Monsignor Mike Mannion of New Jersey said moments after landing.

Aviators say flights of this nature are more physically demanding than they appear from the ground, and if that's true of the C-130s, whose speed tops out at about 375 miles an hour, it's doubly so of the six F-18 jets that headline every show and are famed around the world.

Their velocity ranges between 120 and 700 mph (Blue Angel pilots hit both speeds during a show) and the fliers control them so precisely that some maneuvers have the wing of one aircraft positioned just 18 inches above the canopy (cockpit enclosure) of another.

"You can see the expressions on the faces of your brother pilots," says Marine Capt. Brandon Cordill, who flies the No. 3 (left wing) jet in the diamond formation. "We have to trust one another absolutely, and we do."

The Blue Angels perform 70 shows and are seen by about 11 million spectators a year, all as part of their mission to: "enhance Navy recruiting, and credibly represent Navy and Marine Corps aviation … as international ambassadors of good will."

The squadron has 16 officers and employs dozens of support personnel. The demonstration team in any given show, though, consists of six fliers — pilots one through four, who take part in group maneuvers, along with pilots five and six, who break away from those maneuvers to carry out a variety of solo exploits.

Most pilots who need to execute takeoffs as steep as those seen in Angel air shows do so with the help of "G suits," air-filled outfits that regulate a pilot's blood pressure as the aircraft climbs.

Not so the Angels. They must carry out such precise movements within the tiny one-seat cockpit of the F-18 Hornets, where there's no room for the suits.

Instead, they must clench muscles from the head down to the feet as a way of carrying out the same function, regulating their own blood pressure as they climb or descend so it doesn't change too rapidly.

"I grew up playing sports," says Cordill, a carrier-qualified pilot who has flown in Iraq and Afghanistan, "and [the Blue Angels] stay in excellent condition, but I've never had a harder workout than these demonstrations. At the end of 45 minutes, I'm physically and mentally spent."

But Cordill and the crew aboard Ernie have no complaints. Among other things, they say it has been a thrill to come to Baltimore, a place the Blue Angels haven't visited since 1959.

"The scenery is spectacular up there," says Cordill shortly after his first foray into the skies above the city. "And Fort McHenry is such an important historical site. "The Star-Spangled Banner" was written here. It's very special for us to be part of this bicentennial."

But his words about exhaustion might come as a comfort to Mannion and the others who rode on Ernie.

Take Jennifer Baatstad, an aviation electronics technician second class in the Navy who was just assigned to the Ernie crew.

Thursday's rehearsal was her first time in the aircraft. She nearly got sick. Friday, though, she was whooping and laughing along with longtime crew members as the plane roared through its maneuvers.

After Ernie came down, she already had a veteran's perspective.

"Yesterday was nauseating," she said. "Today was a blast."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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