Lt. Cmdr. James Haley was 8 years old when he decided he would be a pilot in the military.
Haley’s grandfather took him to an air show that year, setting his career path, he said.
Haley grew up in a tiny town in Texas. Most of his family was in ranching. So when he decided to become a pilot for the military, he assumed he would have to go to the Air Force Academy.
A counselor at his school suggested the Naval Academy instead, noting that the Navy also needs pilots. So Haley applied to the summer seminar and spent the summer of his junior year in Annapolis.
“And I got up to Annapolis, and ... just fell in love with the city and the area and the academy and all of its just aura,” Haley said. “When you set foot on the campus or, you know, the yard, as they say, it was just incredible.”
Haley was accepted to the academy and ultimately sent to Pensacola after graduation in 2009 to train as a Navy pilot.
He’s back in Annapolis for Commissioning Week, this time as a Blue Angel. The Blue Angels arrived in Annapolis Tuesday morning and are practicing for the flight demonstration set for Wednesday at 2 p.m.
It is surreal flying over the Naval Academy, he said. When he’s flown during a past Commissioning Week, it brought back many memories from his time on the Yard.
As a midshipman, he pursued the goal of being a pilot and a Blue Angel, but it seemed a distant dream.
When he graduated and watched the Blue Angels, his parents asked him if he still had the goal of joining the team. He did, he said, but he was focused on the short-term goal of going to flight school and getting into the fleet.
It has been one goal after another leading up to his application to the Blue Angels and his acceptance. Now he is in his third and final year as a Blue Angel. Most Blue Angels have a two-year term, but due to COVID-19 and the transition to the new F/A-18 Super Hornet, Haley was able to stay on a third year.
He is the #2 pilot and right wingman for the flight company.
“There were so many moments of just, ‘oh, this is surreal, that I’m actually the one up here in a plane now,’” Haley said. “And hopefully, I’m looking at midshipmen below with the same exact dream.”
While the F/A-18 Super Hornet is new to the Blue Angels, it is not necessarily new to Haley. When he started in the fleet, he flew the Super Hornet, he said.
He misses the Hornet, he said, but getting back in the Super Hornet was like getting back in his first car.
“They always say as aviators; we say you love your first aircraft the most,” he said.
The ones that the Blue Angels fly are not new either. They are the first 12 Super Hornets Boeing built, Haley said.
The Super Hornet is about 30% bigger and about 20 years newer than the Hornet the Blue Angels flew. It has more thrust and power, Haley said.
“It’s just strong and powerful and sturdy,” he said. “And it’s very smooth, which is kind of cool.”
The show generally stayed the same despite the new plane. A couple maneuvers changed and there is a new remote entry. But overall, it is still the same safe and energetic show, he said.
The bigger wing and airplane make the planes seem closer, Haley said. At least, that is what he has heard from crowds.
Performing the shows takes hours of practice. When the Blue Angels introduced the new planes, it meant recertification and six-day work weeks.
Even as the shows come back after the COVID-19 induced hiatus, the pilots are working on improving. For every minute of flight time, they spend two minutes on the ground analyzing their performance.
It’s a relentless pursuit of excellence, he said. In his time with the Blue Angels, he has never flown a perfect demonstration. There’s always room for improvement.
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Flying as a Blue Angel takes focus, especially given how heavy the equipment is that they’re flying, Haley said.
He often cannot see the crowds below due to concentrating on what is ahead of him in the air. But he does get to interact with crowds when he is on the ground, he said.
Since his tour is over, he’ll head back to the fleet once he finishes the year of demonstrations.
The Annapolis week is always special because he is a Naval Academy alumnus, he said.
“But I tell you what, the whole team just has a blast getting to see Annapolis, eat some of the great food, and just overall experience the aura that is Annapolis,” Haley said.