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The Blue Angels: A 65 Year History

65 Years of Angels Over America

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At the end of World War II, the Chief of Naval Operations, Fleet Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, ordered the formation of a flight demonstration team “to keep the public interested in naval aviation,” according to the official record. In fact, the Navy wanted to generate public and political support for a larger allocation of the shrinking defense budget. Having defeated the Axis, the Navy brass was now turning its sights on a different kind of adversary – the Air Force.

Lt. Cmdr. Roy M. “Butch” Voris was among naval aviators who knew that the Air Force would soon become an independent service branch and would enjoy support on Capitol Hill at budget time. When the Navy tasked Voris to assemble and train a flight demonstration team, it picked the right man. A seven-kill air ace who treasured his personal recipe for “Tennessee Hog Heaven Pork Barbecue,” Voris was even-tempered, cool-headed, and a demanding taskmaster. “He was a good guy: pleasant, cheerful, approachable,” said biographer Barrett Tillman in a telephone interview. “He enjoyed telling stories about others more than about himself.”

Having defeated the Axis, the Navy brass was now turning its sights on a different kind of adversary – the Air Force.

Voris launched his team with F6F-5 Hellcats from Grumman. With a 2,800-horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-2800-10W Double Wasp radial engine with water injection, the robust Hellcat was the fighter that had beaten the air arm of the Imperial Japanese Navy in the Pacific. The team made its first appearance May 10, 1946.

Within months of launching the as-yet unnamed team, which initially made about a dozen appearances, Voris learned that the lighter, potentially more maneuverable F8F-1 Bearcat – which had never seen combat – might become available. With the same engine, but weighing about two-thirds as much as a Hellcat, the Bearcat was ideal to demonstrate maneuverability. The F8F-1 became the team’s aircraft on Aug. 25, 1946.

F/A-18 Hornet Blue Angels

An F/A-18 Hornet assigned to the U.S. Navy flight demonstration squadron, the Blue Angels, performs during the 2011 Naval Air Facility El Centro Air Show. This is the nationwide kickoff of the air show season. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Benjamin Crossley

To represent the Japanese Zero fighter at air shows, the team flew an SNJ Texan trainer and later an all-yellow F8F-1 Bearcat. One of the team members visited New York and dined at a nightclub called the Blue Angel: The team now had a name. An attempt by the Navy at an earlier juncture to label them the Blue Lancers had gotten nowhere.

On Sept. 29, 1946, Lt. j.g. Ross “Robby” Robinson failed to recover from a dive in his F8F-1, crashed, and was killed. He was the first of 26 fatalities in the Blue Angels’ 65-year history.

On Sept. 29, 1946, Lt. j.g. Ross “Robby” Robinson failed to recover from a dive in his F8F-1, crashed, and was killed. He was the first of 26 fatalities in the Blue Angels’ 65-year history.

In 1947, Lt. Cmdr. Robert Clarke replaced Voris as team leader and introduced the Blue Angels’ well-known diamond formation and the loop and barrel roll maneuvers while remaining in the same formation.

Gathering a reputation for its spectacular aerobatic maneuvers – and fighting the tendency of the press to call them a “stunt team” – the Blue Angels used a JRB Expeditor (Beech 18) and subsequently an R4D-6 Skytrain for logistical support. After several changes in personnel, the team transitioned to the straight-wing Grumman F9F-2 Panther on July 13, 1949.

Blue Angel Flight Demonstration Squadron F6F Hellcats

The first Blue Angel Flight Demonstration Squadron, 1946-1947, assembled in front of one of their F6F Hellcats. From left: Lt. Al Taddeo, solo; Lt. j.g. Gale Stouse, spare; Lt. Cdr. R.M. “Butch” Voris, flight leader; Lt. Maurice “Wick” Wickendoll, right wing; Lt. Mel Cassidy, left wing. U.S. Navy photo

In early days, one of the Blue Angels’ goals was to outshine the Air Force, which became an independent service branch on Sept. 18, 1947. Although the Air Force and its predecessor services operated a number of aerobatic teams, the well-known Thunderbirds did not come into existence until May 25, 1953.

 

Props to Jets

The Blue Angels flew the F8F-1 Bearcat until a final appearance at Madison, Wis., on Aug. 14, 1949. However, throughout 1949, the team was gradually preparing to transition to the Grumman F9F-2 Panther, the standard Navy jet fighter of the era. Lt. Cmdr. John J. “Johnny” Magda joined the team at that time, and became its commander a few months later. A five-kill air ace, Magda had flown at the Battle of Midway and survived a ditching and five days in a life raft. Magda led the team’s first Panther jet performance at Beaumont, Texas, Aug. 20, 1949.

Lt. Cmdr. R.E. “Dusty” Rhodes, the team’s third commander in 1949, designed the official Blue Angels insignia. It is nearly identical to the current design. In the cloud in the upper-right quadrant, the aircraft were originally shown heading down and to the right. Over the years, the plane silhouettes have changed with the team’s aircraft.

It was a time when jet engines were evolving. Several versions of the Panther were placed on duty with different engines. A Pratt & Whitney J42-P-6/P-8 centrifugal-flow turbojet – a modified Rolls-Royce Nene, providing 5,950 pounds of thrust with water injection – powered the F9F-2. The single-seat, tricycle gear Panther had a wingspan of 37 feet, 5 inches, and weighed 16,450 pounds fully loaded. The Blue Angels’ Panthers dispensed with armament and some other features, reducing their weight to around 14,000 pounds, but Magda and others initially questioned whether jets could be as maneuverable as propeller-driven aircraft.

Lt. Cmdr. R.E. “Dusty” Rhodes, the team’s third commander in 1949, designed the official Blue Angels insignia. It is nearly identical to the current design. In the cloud in the upper-right quadrant, the aircraft were originally shown heading down and to the right. Over the years, the plane silhouettes have changed with the team’s aircraft.

Grumman F9F-5 Panthers

Grumman F9F-5 Panther jets of the U.S. Navy flight demonstration team Blue Angels in 1953. U.S. Navy photo

After the Korean War began, the Navy decided to return the Blue Angels to fleet duty. Re-equipped with cannon-armed F9F-2B Panthers, and led by Magda, the team formed the nucleus of fighter squadron VF-191, “Satan’s Kittens,” assigned to USS Princeton (CV 37). In a move that has never been repeated by either the Navy or the Air Force, the Navy sent its flight demonstration team into battle.

On March 9, 1951, Magda led a strike against North Korean and Chinese troops. He was making a low-level attack with rockets and guns when gunfire struck his Panther. Magda’s wingmen saw his F9F-2B consumed with flames. The pilot managed to get the aircraft out to sea, but it went down in the water and Magda, just 33, was lost. The Navy posthumously awarded him the Navy Cross, the nation’s second-highest award for valor.

After the Korean War began, the Navy decided to return the Blue Angels to fleet duty. Re-equipped with cannon-armed F9F-2B Panthers, and led by Magda, the team formed the nucleus of fighter squadron VF-191, “Satan’s Kittens,” assigned to USS Princeton (CV 37). In a move that has never been repeated by either the Navy or the Air Force, the Navy sent its flight demonstration team into battle.

In October 1951, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. William M. Fechteler ordered that the Blue Angels be re-formed as a flight demonstration team. Voris, now a commander, had been on the verge of retiring, but was brought back to reorganize the team and did so on Oct. 25, 1951. The Blue Angels took up station at Corpus Christi, Texas, which had been their pre-Korea home, and began flying the F9F-5 Panther, starting with an exhibition in June 1952. The F9F-5 was the main production version of the ubiquitous Panther. It was powered by a 7,600-pound thrust Pratt & Whitney J48-P-4, -6, or -8 centrifugal-flow turbojet, based on the Rolls-Royce Nene, and had a combat weight of about 17,000 pounds.

On July 7, 1952, two Blue Angels Panthers collided at low level during a demonstration at Corpus Christi. Voris was able to land his badly damaged aircraft but Lt. Bud Wood ejected. He never separated from his seat and was killed on impact.

F7U Cutlass jets Blue Angels 1953

F7U Cutlass jets of the U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron Blue Angels. The Blue Angels were persuaded to fly two Cutlasses as a side act during their 1953 season, but both pilots and maintainers found the “Gutless Cutlass” unsuitable for the team. U.S. Navy photo

Also beginning in 1952, the team operated a TV-2 Shooting Star (T-33 trainer) and a solo F8F-2 Bearcat while continuing to perform in Panthers. Two years later, the team briefly used an R5C Commando (C-46) for logistics support but was stymied by the difficulty of loading the aircraft. They replaced it with an R4D-8 Skytrain (Super DC-3).

In more recent years, Pentagon policy was changed to prohibit the two teams performing within 150 miles of each other (in order to permit each to be a recruiting tool for its own service branch) although both teams often perform with the U.S. Army Parachute Team, the Golden Knights, or the U.S. Navy Parachute Team, the Leap Frogs.

The “Blues,” as they were now being labeled in shorthand, made many appearances in the F9F-5, including one at Bolling Air Force Base, Washington, D.C., on Armed Forces Day in May 1954. For the first time they appeared with – and sailors, never unbiased, say they outperformed – the Air Force’s newly formed Thunderbirds, flying F-84G Thunderjets. In more recent years, Pentagon policy was changed to prohibit the two teams performing within 150 miles of each other (in order to permit each to be a recruiting tool for its own service branch) although both teams often perform with the U.S. Army Parachute Team, the Golden Knights, or the U.S. Navy Parachute Team, the Leap Frogs.

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Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...