I’ve always considered myself somewhat adventurous, overcoming fears and all that. From never turning down an opportunity to do anything outside the norm to packing up my family and moving 600 miles to a place where I knew absolutely no one in order to take my first publisher position, I’ve always charged forward, guns a-blazing.
It all started with my older brother forcing me on one of the big rides at the State Fair of Texas in Dallas. He is 11 years my senior and didn’t leave me much choice. I was petrified, but he told me once I did it that I would no longer be afraid, and he was right. (Years later I tried the same tactic with one of my daughters, and she still hasn’t forgiven me.) I have carried that don’t-knock-it-’till-you-try-it concept with me ever since.
So, when I arrived in Imperial Valley almost two years ago and learned there was a possibility to go on a flight with the Blue Angels, of course I was eager for the opportunity. It turned out to be an even bigger adventure/challenge than I could have imagined, as well as a huge opportunity to learn some things.
The Blue Angels have been around for 72 years and perform for approximately 11 million spectators per year. The group first arrived at the NAF El Centro in 1954 for winter training and it eventually became their winter home. Many people in the Valley grew up with having this elite group flying overhead in the winter as the “norm” and take great pride in that fact.
Along with choosing two “Key Influencers” from each community, the Blue Angels also choose a primary (and only) media rider for flights just before each air show they perform. The idea is to use the opportunity as a form of outreach — after all, they are the U.S. Navy Ambassadors.
Imperial Valley Press received the call out for applicants in January, and I was quick to jump on that train, or plane, if you will.
There was an application process, which included submitting a biography as well as a medical exam form signed by my doctor. Then the wait began. Tick tock.
Finally, Friday of last week I received that email that I had been watching for, “CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR SELECTION AS PRIMARY MEDIA RIDER.” The flight was scheduled for March 7, which had been on my calendar for weeks, but now was just five days away. This unexpectedly threw me into a whirlwind of emotions. I think it didn’t really hit me until that moment that THIS IS A REALLY BIG DEAL! Very few get the privilege, and I needed to prepare for this monumental adventure.
Being a researcher by nature, my trusted friend Google and I began to look for information on the realities of what I was about to do. The first video I discovered showed a reporter passing out…yes…PASSING OUT! Okay, I thought, what have I gotten myself into?
As always, I chose to face this head on. I reminded myself what a great honor it is to be selected for a flight and how few people actually get this opportunity. Tick tock.
March 7, 5:30 a.m. — I’m wide awake, TODAY IS THE DAY! I have been anticipating this day, sometimes anxiously, for what feels like forever. I decide to take a hot bath and relax before heading out the Naval Air Facility, El Centro.
8:32 a.m. — I arrive at the gate. Yes, I was a couple of minutes behind schedule, which did nothing to calm my nerves. I see that the two residents chosen as key influencer riders and a few other people, including my photographer and a couple of alternate riders (just in case someone “falls out”), are standing by their cars ready to go. Shortly thereafter, Kristopher K. Haugh, NAF El Centro public affairs officer, zooms up on a golf cart and signals to us to follow him. We all return to our vehicles and proceed to a different parking area.
8:45 a.m. — We are led into a “briefing” room where we met Crew Chief AD2 Robert Weitershausen, who will henceforth be referred to as AD2 W for the sake of this narrative, no disrespect intended. He sat with the three of us who were scheduled to fly and went over a few things, including signing the “Air Transportation Agreement” that essentially states we cannot hold the Navy liable if anything happens, all the while assuring us that he wanted to make sure that we felt safe and had a great time.
The thing is, as uptight as I was feeling I believed him that moment and stand by that today. These military men are exemplary ambassadors and are clearly in this to serve.
Throughout the briefing we learned that the F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets that the Blue Angels fly are capable of speeds up to 1400 mph and can break the speed of sound. AD2 W covered three primary topics which were cockpit familiarization, aviation physiology (yikes!) and the unlikely event of a “bonus ride,” which translates into ejection.
As we covered the information, serious reality set in for me. We were warned not to touch anything in the cockpit that was marked black & yellow, how to physically fight the G forces that can cause you to pass out and what to do if you lose your breakfast or eject. Okay, this just got real up in here.
I was, however, reassured that one has a better chance of winning the lottery than enduring ejection from the plane. I might have processed this news differently had I ever actually won the lottery.
Following the briefing, we were given flight suits, and of course mine didn’t fit. Ugh!
9:33 a.m. — the entire group walked Dr. Todd Finnell, known as KI-1 (Key Influencer 1) for the day, out to Blue Angel #7.
Both Dr. Finnell and KI-2, Kimberly Lyon, appeared to be floating on air. I don’t recall ever seeing two people more excited and filled with anticipation. Both were smiling from ear to ear and were obviously in awe of the situation. They were clearly very honored and grateful for the opportunity — grateful to the Blue Angels and grateful to the people who nominated them as key influencers in our community.
It was at that time that I felt almost guilty — maybe humbled is a better word — for being there. Finnell and Lyon spoke of how they grew up watching the Blue Angels. I had not. The Air Force Thunderbirds were much more a part of my youth due to living near an air force base where they performed. Although we didn’t share the same history, I felt deeply honored to be chosen to tell the story just the same.
There was tremendous energy in that small group, which included family members. Finnell’s mother, Gaylla Finnell, was just as excited as if she were about to board as well. She told me that she had been chosen as an alternate a few years ago. Although she didn’t get the coveted Blue Angel flight, she was given the opportunity to ride in “Fat Albert,” their Hercules C-130 support aircraft. She said she had a blast.
As we stood eyeing the plane in awe, another gracious member of the Blue Angels, AD2 Morgan Alvarez, handed out little boxes of “ear protection” to the group as Finnell was strapped into #7. He then gave us a two thumbs up, and off they went. As the plane made its way to the runway, AD2 W told us where to watch for the 45-degree ascent, which he described as “the best part of the whole flight.”
The group returned to the briefing room, where I still didn’t have a flight suit. Upon encouragement to have something on our stomachs from the staff, Kimberly went in search of food. I accepted a protein bar that was generously offered by the media rider alternate and proceeded to check emails and wait. Tick tock.
Approximately 45 minutes later, the group was escorted back out to greet Finnell. “Woo!” he shouted as he disembarked the aircraft, “Crazy!” It took him a moment to “get his legs back” and clear his head before gushing his appreciation for the experience as well as his increased admiration of the skills of the pilots. He also recounted that he “went out once.” Oh boy…
We once again retreated to the briefing room where my anxiety hit an all-time high. If we had been in a movie, the clock ticking sound effect would have suited the situation perfectly. I’m still trying to find someone to get me a flight suit.
11:14 a.m. — It is now Kimberly’s turn. She springs toward the door as if wild horses couldn’t hold her back. It’s getting hot outside, so I am told that I should probably stay put and hydrate. It gets pretty hot in the aircraft and they are concerned with dehydration. Tick…
11:15 a.m. — I’M TERRIFIED! To be clear, I am absolutely not afraid of flying, or crashing, or ejecting, for that matter. The little things are filling my head with chaotic thoughts. Did I eat the right amount of food? How difficult will climbing that ladder be with my bad knee that never quite recovered from surgery last summer? If I keep hydrating, will I be able to wait for the bathroom? Can I keep my game face on while “pulling 7 Gs” as a camera is pointed right at my face? Can I keep my stomach in order, with a camera pointed right at my face? SOMEONE PLEASE GET ME A FLIGHT SUIT!
Sometime around 11:48 a.m. (I’m becoming less clear headed and less precise by this time) — Kimberly has landed. Engulfed in pure joy, she returns to the briefing room to change and wait for her thumb drive, which holds the video from her flight. She admits to experiencing a “micro-nap” as well. Kimberly describes her experience with awe, much like Finnell using terms like “crazy” and “amazing.”
I’m not sure I can feel my feet. Tick tock.
Shortly thereafter, the pilot, Lt. Andre Webb, otherwise known as “7,” pops in ever so calm, cool and collected to let me know he is going to grab some lunch while they are re-fueling. He just completed two flights and is eating just before the third. Wow, nothing but respect.
The Public Affairs Officer entrusted with our care is able to speak to AD2 W about the flight suit. AD2 W promptly arrives with the correct size in tow.
Sometime around 1 p.m. — I am escorted to #7. AD2 W encourages me as I carefully climb that dreaded ladder. With a most calming demeanor, he carefully fastens the multitude of straps designed to keep me safe, straps on the helmet and points that camera right at my face.
After I am set, 7 climbs in the front seat and starts communicating with me. This gentleman not only has mad flying skills, but is the perfect host as well. Lt. Webb could not have been more kind and accommodating. I knew I was in the best hands the navy has to offer.
Time’s up. Just breathe.
My flight was incredible. The experience was phenomenal. Words escape this old wordsmith.
I do remember thinking this Valley is even more beautiful than I knew, both visually as well as in terms of the heart of the people who live and influence one another here.
Even though I understood the value of the Blue Angels to the area, I didn’t quite understand how deeply rooted they are in the culture.
Here are a few my other key takeaways:
1. The physical and mental demands on a fighter pilot reach far beyond anything I could have imagined.
2. Never let fear interfere.
3. I am not as young as I once was.
4. Sometimes you just need some perspective, from a few miles up.
According to the U.S. Navy, the mission of this elite U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron is to showcase the pride and professionalism of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps by inspiring a culture of excellence and service to country through flight demonstrations and community outreach.
Well done, Blue Angels. Mission accomplished.