Every year, for more than 50 years; representing all walks of life and nearly every state in the nation, officers who have served in combat missions and humanitarian relief efforts throughout the world; come together to showcase the vigilance, talent, spirit and professionalism in the most spectacular air shows ever to be experienced. For nine months of the year, March through November, these aeronautic acrobats travel back and forth across the country performing nearly 40 shows at specially selected Air Force Bases, airports and FBOs. “Specially selected” because demonstration teams such as the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds, with the numerous invitations they receive from air shows across the nation, can only attend so many each year. Unable to announce their final performance schedules until December, this leaves show organizers at each location sitting with bated breath to learn whether or not their show is on the list.
KEEPING THEM IN THE AIR
As spectators, we excite in the roar of the engines as the monstrous birds soar in formation, close to the horizon. Not surprisingly, children and adults alike, admiring these skilled yet courageous pilots, clamor for autographs after the “grand finale” in the air. But as with any aircraft, the F/A-18 Hornets or F-16 Fighting Falcons, which are what the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds fly respectively, are high performance tactical aircraft designed to perform both fighter and attack missions and must be maintained to guarantee command readiness and top-notch safety performance. “With us, as important as the pilots are, they do realize that none of this would happen without us and we know that without them, there would be no Thunderbirds,” says MSgt. Morris Southern, Line Chief from Eastman, Ga. with the Thunderbirds for five seasons.
Whether with the Blue Angels or the Thunderbirds, maintenance and support teams for these air shows require applicants to go through extensive screening, including interviewing with current team members, ensuring both squadrons a tradition of excellence. MSgt. Southern, with the air force since 1983 and crew chief by trade, explained there is a comprehensive “package” of materials required to become part of the AGE (Aviation Ground Equipment) crew. “Luckily for me, my career field is on the F-16, so I’ve spent about 12 years on them, which, though not mandatory, is one of the things we look for,” says MSgt. Southern. “But you do have to have fighter aircraft background (F-15, F-16, A-10, etc.) on one of these frontline fighters.”
One of the interesting differences between the ground crews for the Thunderbirds and the Blue Angels is the term used for the ground support equipment. The Air Force calls it AGE; the Navy dropped the “E” altogether and calls it ground support. But the major difference overall is the number of staff required while traveling. With an entire team of 70, 45 of whom are maintainers, the Thunderbirds have almost double the crew. In addition, the Blue Angels have a one-shift operation while the Thunderbirds work a two-shift operation working days and a swing shift at the show, while half of the entire 90-member ground crew stays at home at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. And though not equal in number to their male counterparts, both teams have female crewmembers.
“A lot of people think it’s just all show … a lot of wiping the airplanes down and keeping them painted, keeping them clean,” says MSgt. Southern. “But it’s a lot of hard work that goes into preparing the jets.” According to Southern, once they “hit a show site,” they set up the area they are going to park the planes, gas them up, change the tires, clean the canopies, rag the jets with a cleaning compound, and perform engine runs. “From structural people to hydraulics to crew chiefs, teamwork is very important and safety is our number one concern,” says Southern. With paint markings on the ground as a reference for the pilots when they are making their maneuvers and music cues set for crews to walk across the ramp, ascend the ladders, start their engines and taxi out in unison, the show is choreographed like the Nutcracker ballet. Yet even with 220 days “on the road,” MSgt. Southern will tell you that the most grueling part of the job is at home—during the training season when they have to perform maintenance on the jets, paint touch-ups, phase inspections, etc., logging long hours of very physical work.
LOGISTICS ON THE GROUND
The responsibility of the Blue Angels’ and the Thunderbirds’ crewmembers is to practice over and over and over again, numerous training maneuvers, while performing with complete precision, talent and skill, providing an unforgettable experience for every audience they encounter. But the teams do not haul their own ground support or AGE, so what about logistics, such as tools, ground support equipment, maintenance and transportation fees?
The Blue Angels’ and Thunderbirds’ show coordinator begins working several months in advance with the air show coordinator at each location to set everything up.
It’s a no-brainer as far as what equipment is needed because both the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds manuals are very specific and detailed, according to Julie Dacey, Airshow Director/Coordinator of the Southern Wisconsin AirFEST in Janesville, Wis. “Things as small as a can of spray paint to as huge as the hydraulic power units are listed in the manual,” says Dacey. And whether the show is at a civilian or a military base, the same equipment is required, however, not every base, particularly the commercial ones, are outfitted with the necessary equipment, which is strictly military-specific. “It’s mandatory for their show, if you don’t have, or are unable to obtain the equipment in the manual, they may be unable to support your event,” says Dacey.
One year when Dacey hosted the Thunderbirds, they had seven flatbed trucks of ground support equipment trucked in from neighboring bases. But it’s not as simple as just getting on the horn, calling those military bases, and asking for equipment. “You have to establish a relationship with those bases, getting them to loan you the equipment and support you,” says Dacey. “Because while it’s important for [the military bases] to support the team, it’s not their number-one priority.” Dacey gave an example with a situation they ran into this past summer. “In the past, we have always utilized Truax Field in Madison, Volk Field at Fort Campbell, also located in Wisconsin, in support of the show and military participants,” says Dacey. “But this year, because of strategic exercises and deployments, which took precedence over airshow support—this created limited availability of equipment that had been confirmed at an earlier date so in addition to these two bases, the Duluth National Guard, located 300 miles north, was also called on to truck in a portion of the equipment.” As for fees; transportation fees for the equipment are sometimes assessed to the show, but trade-outs in tickets, activities and recognition at the show are common protocol. And there is a nominal fee ($12,000 in 2005) to have the teams perform in an air show according to Dacey, simply to offset their traveling expenses.
Once the teams have the equipment required, they handle their own maintenance, however, the Janesville Jet Center and most other Air Show Operators are responsible in getting the fuel trucks to the team as needed.
There are six jets in the Thunderbirds’ show and for a high altitude show on a clear day, each jet requires approximately 800 gallons of gas. The teams perform their own fueling, but it requires manpower from the base to get the fuel trucks to and from the center of operations. Not to mention the manpower needed for ticketing, security, hospitality, providing meals, etc. “For the entire show,” says Dacey, “our volunteer manpower is a total of around 250 over the course of the weekend.” Yet where there is a show with the Thunderbirds or the Blue Angels, aviation enthusiasts appear from far and wide, almost begging to come to the event and help with the show.
A FOUNDATION FOR LIFE
Many crewmembers, to make the transition back into civilian life, are given the privilege of connections with FAA representatives to enable them to acquire their FAA license to work on commercial airlines at no cost. It’s been said by both teams that being a member of the Blue Angels or the Thunderbirds is a lesson that goes far beyond the years on the crew. It’s such an incredible honor to be selected and there are remarkably high standards that one is held to, it simply carries over into future careers … always pressing toward perfection, even in the most minor of tasks.