Blue Angels' Captain Greg McWherter on the Most Difficult Stunts, "Chair-Flying" and 'Top Gun'
Like the Blue Angels? Of course you do. There are few things more bad-ass than flying 700 miles per hour in $21 million fighter jets. Are you watching them this weekend for Fleet Week? Of course you are.
But before you do, read what Blue Angels' Captain Greg McWherter has to say about their most difficult stunts, pre-flying rituals and Top Gun.
How many years have you been flying with the Blue Angels?
I've been flying with the Navy for 20 years and this is my second year as a Blue Angel pilot.
What does it take to become a Blue Angel?
You put in an application and then you're picked by the team, which is unlike any other process we have in the military. There's no big political influence to choose anyone. We choose the person who has the right skill set and the right personality. Each person on the team applies, they interview with the team several times and the team ends up picking the one who they think is the best fit. Most of the people in the Navy and Marine Corps. can do this job, but what a lot of people don't have is the right personality to fit in with the team. We're like one big married couple, except we're 16 husbands and wives.
What’s the most difficult stunt you perform? The easiest?
A number of them are challenging. The interesting thing about our demonstrations is that we're not kidding when we say that these are basic techniques taught to all Navy and Marine Corps aviators -- We've just refined them a little bit. Believe it or not, our most difficult maneuvers are the ones that look the simplest. When we roll into formation, that's actually very hard but it looks very graceful. Our high-speed crossing maneuvers are the ones that look the hardest, but they're often the easiest. It's a little deceiving. The most difficult things we do is called the Left Echelon Roll, where we have a four-plane formation that is lined out on the left side, and we sort of roll into each other.
What’s harder, takeoff or landing?
Out on the aircraft carrier, which is where most of us came from, the landings, especially night landings, are much more difficult because you have no point of reference and it's pitch black out in the ocean at night. And landing on an aircraft carrier where the landing strip is only a few hundred feet long is very challenging. Most landings at air shows are done on 10,000 foot runways, so the landings and takeoffs aren't hard.
Do you guys have conversations in between maneuvers?
We get asked that all the time! We very rarely do, because the demonstration is so full of important information that I need to convey to them over radio. There's very little time for idle chit-chat. And I say that tongue in cheek, because there are some open moments during the demonstration where we could make a comment about the weather or say 'Boy, look at the crowds down there! It's a beautiful day!' But by and large, there are two people talking, which is myself and the number 5 pilot. I'm the one who's talking to all the diamond pilots [the first four pilots], and we're the ones who do the precision formations. When I talk, they know that I'm going to move the jet exactly the way I talk. So if I say something very slowly, they know I'm going to move the stick and throttle very slowly. And if I speed up my cadence, they'll speed up too. They need to hear everything I say, so there's very little time for anything else to be said.
Darn! I also wanted to know what kind of music you guys listen to up there!
Yeah, no we don't. There's no spare brain power to listen to music.
Well, what would be the Blue Angels’ theme song, if you had one?
[laughing] Probably anything hard rock, in terms of what we listen to before we go in the air. As you watch the demonstrations, each maneuver is put to a specific song, and each song mimics the maneuvers. So if its a very fast maneuver, it will most likely be a rock song, and if it's a slow, graceful maneuver, it will be a slower song. So "Sweet Emotion" by Aerosmith is what we use for the Left Echelon Roll, because the beginning of "Sweet Emotion" is laid back and easy to listen to.
Which city looks the best from the air? What’s the best thing about San Francisco from the air?
Every place we go is very unique. San Francisco is beautiful from the air, it's beautiful from the ground. We come in conjunction with Fleet Week, and the reception we get is great. We get an audience in San Francisco that we rarely get anywhere else.
And flying around a city this beautiful with things like the Golden Gate Bridge with Sausalito in the background, Angel Island, Alcatraz, the Trans America Pyramid....from an aviation standpoint, it's a once in a lifetime experience. We look forward to this show every year.
Do any of you have any strange pre-flying rituals? Good luck charms? Weird things you have to do before you fly?
We're a very structured organization, as you can imagine. We do the same thing every practice on a show day. Two hours prior to flying, we get geared up and drive into work together. When we get to work, we go into our briefing room and close the doors for almost an hour before we brief and we don't let anyone upset that. No family, no press, no friends. And we do that just so we can get focused as a team. Once we start the briefing, we have a set pattern. I lead the briefing, talking about the weather, and we'll sit in our chairs and close our eyes. We'll put our right hands out like we're gripping the controls stick, our left hands out like we've got our throttle and we'll "chair fly" through several maneuvers just like we're flying the plane. And from an outsider looking in, it looks like we're doing a seance. And after the show, we get out, we shake hands, we spend 30 minutes with the crowd and then we go into the debriefing room for two hours. We do that every day of the week, and it works.
How do you get rid of motion sickness?
I don't get it. My body just gets used to it. But it's a very uncomfortable environment for your body. It's hot, the seat's uncomfortable, you're being pulled by G-forces, the air conditioning kind of stinks. It's the recipe for sickness.
What are your biggest fears in life? Spiders? Public Speaking?
No. Most of us in aviation are fairly confident, and not in a cocky way. We put a ton of effort into training. When I go into work every day, I'm not worried that I'm going to hurt myself. My biggest fear is not living up to my potential and not putting on a show as good as I know I can.
How many times have you come close to death in the air?
[laughs] Well, it's the old aviation thing, every time you go flying, you're as close to living and as close to dying as you'll ever be anywhere. It's just part of aviation, which is inherently dangerous. Personally, I haven't been what I consider close to death while being a Blue Angel. When I was a younger guy, twenty years ago learning how to fly jets off aircraft carriers, I would say no fewer than once a week did I come close to killing myself. Every time I got back from a scary mission, I would kiss the ground. But what we do in the Blue Angels is far less dangerous than flying off of aircraft carriers.
Do you guys like volleyball?
When I joined the Navy, Top Gun had just come out, so that's kind of what steered me towards the Navy, as cheesy as that sounds. I always knew I wanted to fly, but I didn't know the Navy was the way to go until that movie! That sounds terrible but that's the truth. But yes we all play sports, the average girl and guy on our team is very athletic. But in between flights, no we don't take off our shirts, play volleyball and yell at each other [laughs].
Where to watch the Blue Angels:
Unless you've got a friend in the area with killer roof access, Fisherman's Wharf, Fort Mason and Aquatic Park's grandstand seating areas are ground zero for Blue Angels spectators. They start flying at 3 pm on Saturday and Sunday, so get there early to snag a good spot and to watch Fat Albert Airlines do its own air stunts.
If you're nearer to the Marina, check out Marina Green, where wide open waterfront vistas are perfect to watch the sweeping aerials of the Blue Angels. Snag tickets for a space for you and your family here. The park will be full of entertainment, and a luxurious, fully catered viewing area dubbed the Flight Deck Club. Get tickets for that here.