Seventeen Navy and Marine Corps officers volunteer to serve as Blue Angels. Officers typically
serve two years with the Blue Angels, so each year three tactical/fighter jet pilots, two support
officers and one Marine Corps C-130 pilot joins the team to replace departing members. To fly
Fat Albert, the Blue Angels' support plane, a Marine Corps pilot must have at least 1,200 flight
Blue Angel #8, the Events Coordinator, requires experience as a Naval Flight Officer or Weapons System Officer with at least 1,250 flight hours. Blue Angels #1-7 are piloted by Marine or Navy pilots with aircraft carrier qualifications and at least 1,250 flight hours. Blue
Angels #1, the Commanding Officer or "Boss," must have a minimum of 3,000 tactical jet flight hours and must have commanded a tactical jet squadron.
Commander Ryan J. Bernacchi of the U.S. Navy and the current Blue Angels "Boss" joined the team in 2015 with over 3,500 flight hours and 600 carrier landings. His impressive resume includes Top Gun training followed by a stint as a Top Gun Instructor Pilot; a Master's Degree
with Distinction from the Naval War College; service as a Federal Executive Fellow at MIT; two deployments with the USS Abraham Lincoln; deployment with the USS John Stenis for Operation Enduring Freedom; and numerous commendation medals.
Commander Bernacchi, inspired to become a military aviator after attending an air show as a child, now has the great opportunity to inspire other children to follow in his footsteps. To hear
Commander Bernacchi speak with great pride of serving with the Blue Angels is like seeing a
child playing with his favorite toy on Christmas - eyes brightly open with a twinkle and brilliant
smile surrounded with a beautiful glow of Blue. Commander Bernacchi explains that all the maneuvers and formations performed in their
shows are the same as those they train for as naval aviators - just a bit closer and lower to the
ground. The Blue Angels spend an immense amount of time practicing their routine hundreds
and hundreds of times. Starting in a loose formation, they gradually bring the formation closer
and closer together till they successfully reach their goal - 18 inches from wingtip to canopy in
their tightest formation.
Imagine driving 700 miles per hour while maintaining less than an arms distance between you
and the car next to you. Think you could do it? That's what the Blue Angels do in the air while
performing perfectly timed and stunning maneuvers, compensating for varying weather and
wind conditions. "Lots of trust - teamwork - and practice" is the recipe according to
I asked the "Boss" about the breathtaking opposing solos - how did they come up with those
maneuvers? Commander Bernacchi explained they are tactical maneuvers of two fighters
merging in a simulated dog fight - just closer to the ground for our viewing pleasure.
Performing their maneuvers the exact same way during every practice and performance is
essential to minimize the variables they must accommodate.
Often during an air show we are allowed to listen over the loudspeaker as the "Boss" rhythmically chants the timing of their maneuver. I asked him if he is the only one making the calls. The Commander explains that they all take turns making calls at the appropriate time.
Add chatter from the ground crew and there's a lot of talking going on during their
performance. It's an "invigorating experience," Commander Bernacchi explains.
Twenty-one years into his military service, the Commander doesn't look to far into the future.
While he anticipates returning to The Fleet after his Blue Angels tenure, his current focus is on
flying a great show each and every time.
Later in the morning, we met up with the Blue Angels Public Affairs Officer who went through
extensive training by the military to become a Mass Communication Specialist. To date he has
flown four times with Blue Angels #7 which has a back seat. While these flights were used for
aerial photography, the officer was also treated to the powerful capabilities of the F/A-18
Hornet and its pilot. He told us of the thrill of experiencing rolls, inverted flight and high-speed
passes at 0.8 Mach. He explained that the Hornet is capable of pulling up to 8 Gs (i.e. 8 times the ground force of
gravity on the body) which causes blood from the head to pool in the lower extremities,
eventually resulting in a blackout. The Blue Angels don't wear g-suits because the suits would
interfere with their flying. Since the pilots are aware which maneuvers result in high Gs, they
can fight the G forces by performing the "Hick Maneuver" - tightening the muscles in the
abdomen and lower extremities to keep the blood in their heads.
The Public Affairs Officer told us that on one flight, after experiencing 7 Gs four or five times,
his body was so exhausted that he no longer had the strength to perform the Hick Maneuver
and blacked-out on the next high-G maneuver. Upon regaining consciousness, he recalled his
body feeling as if had just completed a 3-hour gym workout. He then went to his room and
slept for 10 hours to recover from the impact the Gs had on his body.
We were later directed to a C-17 Globemaster III, assigned to the 105th Airlift Wing of the New York Air National Guard located next to Stewart International Airport. The 22-year old C-17 we examined included nose art of Captain America hovering about a New York City street scene. The
nose art was proudly painted by a Stewart National Guardsman after going through a rigorous approval process.
The cargo section of a C-17 can be converted from a personnel carrier to a helicopter transporter to a mobile hospital in as little as 10 minutes. The cargo floor can be outfitted with rollers to easily load metal pallets of cargo. Missions performed by the 105th have included transport of the Presidential limousine and a marine detachment with all their gear and humvees. If a journey is too far to fly direct, Army helicopters can be loaded into the C-17 and delivered to their destination. The sides of the cargo area are outfitted with sidewall seats - enough for 54 individuals or paratroopers with all their gear. The seating capacity increases to 102 when the center of the cargo area is fitted with seats that are carried in the back of the plane.
The C-17 can also be outfitted as a flying Army hospital with room for up to 9 patients who are
picked up from the battlefield and flown directly to a medical facility. Often patients are flown
directly to the U.S. Military Hospital in Landstuhl, Germany. However, if a patient will be better
served elsewhere, the crew of the 105th is prepared to do whatever it takes to help their fellow
soldiers. We were told of a 18 hour mission to transport badly burned soldiers to Brooke Army
Medical Center near San Antonio, Texas. This direct flight required two aerial refuelings and
the dedication and determination of the C-17 crew. The survivability rate of wounded soldiers
has improved significantly due to the ability to get the injured from the battlefield to proper
medical care quickly.
But how does the C-17 crew accommodate for an 18 hour mission? The C-17 requires two
pilots and one loadmaster. If a short mission is anticipated, it will go out with a basic crew -
two pilots and one loadmaster. But for an extended mission it is deployed with an augmented
crew - three pilots and two loadmasters, to allow the crew to get some rest during the mission.
The C-17 crew is authorized to fly up to 24 hours - waiverable for a longer mission in a life or
The loadmaster is the "cargo boss," responsible for the safe loading/unloading of cargo and
passengers to ensure the aircraft remains within permissible center of gravity limits throughout
the flight. While computerized calculations are usually used by the loadmaster, he is capable
of completing the calculations manually should their computer system fail.
As an Air National Guard Base, Stewart is manned by a skeleton crew of 15 full-time soldiers.
Part-time guardsmen are required to fly once every 60 days and spend one weekend per
month attending to other duties to keep the base fully operational. But strong pride in their
unit, their base and their country drives many guardsmen to return to their base more often
than required. The names of the C-17 mechanics are stamped on the outside of their planes
so it's not just a job to them - its personal.
We attended the Air Show on Saturday, July 1st. The B25 Panchito was unable to fly due to
mechanical issues, but enjoyed a fan-favorite, the Heritage Flight, flown with a P51 Mustang,
F-35 Lightning and F-16 Viper. Air Shows at Stewart International Airport are unique in that
cargo and passenger departures/arrivals continue throughout the show - requiring a wellcoordinated
dance between the Air Show Air Boss and Stewart Tower.
As the day progressed, the sky started to darken. The prospect of rain holding off through the
Blue Angels show scheduled to start at 3pm looked bleak. But the entire air show team rallied
and the Blue Angels quickly took to the skies followed by the familiar gasps, roars and claps
from the crowd as the Angels successfully performed maneuver after maneuver, finishing their
45 minute show before the rains fell.
Next year the New York Air Show is scheduled for September 15-16 and will feature the U.S.
Air Force Thunderbirds. Tickets are currently available online at www.airshowny.com.
Our deepest sympathies to the Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 452 (VMGR-452),
the New York Air National Guard, Stewart International Airport, and all their families for their
tragic loss. The C-130 involved in a horrible crash in Mississippi on July 10, 2017 was based at
Stewart International Airport. The accident took the lives of 15 Marines and 1 Sailor, many of
whom were based at Stewart. May our country surround all those impacted by loss in a
blanket of comfort and pride - may their bravery and courage be honored and sacrifice never
taken for granted.