As the blue and gold F/A-18 Hornet flew over the Atlantic Ocean, a few miles off the coast of Key West, U.S. Navy Lt. Ryan Chamberlain selected full afterburner — to increase the thrust.
“I’m going to push forward on the stick and you’re going to get a little bit light in your seat,” the 27-year-old pilot of Blue Angels No. 7 told a visitor getting the ride of a lifetime.
“All right, we’re at 10 seconds and there is 230 knots,” Chamberlain said. “There’s .5 Mach — we’re at 300 knots in 15 seconds.”
The countdown continued: “350 knots, 400 in 20 seconds, 450, 500, 600. There’s 1.02 Mach. We’re faster than the speed of sound.”
Chamberlain and the rest of the elite pilots who fly for America’s iconic demonstration squadron make flying faster than 700 mph, pulling up to eight g’s without a gravity suit and flying in a diamond formation with just 18 inches of separation between four planes seem as easy as driving a car in an empty parking lot.
The Blue Angels have been showing off the United States’ air power, boosting Navy morale, recruiting young aviators and promoting goodwill for the military since 1946 — while thrilling more than 260 million people with precision flying, speed and acrobatics.
On Saturday and Sunday, an additional 30,000 to 40,000 people are expected to watch the Blue Angels perform during the free Southernmost Air Spectacular at Naval Air Station Key West, where the squadron trained from 1958 to 1962 before relocating due to the Cuban missile crisis.
“And we’re wondering if we will get even bigger crowds based on all the sequester discussion,” said Capt. Pat Lefere, commander of NAS Key West. “It might be the last show the Blue Angels do this [fiscal] year.”
On March 1, $85 billion in automatic federal budget cuts took effect. The military was faced with slashing about $46 billion from its $500 billion-plus budget. While the Blue Angels’ annual cost of about $28 million is just a small fraction of that budget, the squadron is not critical to military preparedness.
The Air Force’s Thunderbirds and the Army’s Golden Knights parachute team already have canceled all their performances from April 1 until Sept. 30, when the fiscal year ends.
The Blue Angels have not yet officially canceled any shows. But eight of their scheduled performances in the next three months will not take place because organizers chose to cancel those air shows without the guarantee that the marquee draw would take part.
“The Blue Angels are the Rolling Stones of the air show industry,” said John Cudahy, president of the International Council on Air Shows. “If they shut down for the season and are unable to perform, it will have a profound impact in every corner of the industry, including shows where they don’t perform.”
NAS Key West was fortunate that its air show falls at the beginning of the Blue Angels’ 2013 season, Lefere said.
His station could not wait to see if the automatic budget cuts were averted to start spending money and signing contracts to put on the Southernmost Air Spectacular, which costs about $430,000.
“One of the first biggest purchases we had to buy was the smoke oil that comes out of the Blue Angels,” he said. “We were on a spending freeze for buying anything at that point. We went all the way to the top. I think the decision was made at the highest levels of the Navy to let us spend the money.”
There were also expenditures for tents, chairs and port-o-potties. So when the sequester went into affect, the Navy gave the green light for the Blue Angels to perform in its two scheduled March shows. Its first performance took place earlier this month in El Centro, Calif., where the team trains for the winter before relocating to its permanent base in Pensacola.
The Navy funded about $140,000 of the Key West show, with the balance coming from sponsors that include Budweiser and the Key West Marriott Beachside. The Monroe County Tourist Development Council also is kicking in $60,000 worth of advertising, according to Trice Denny, spokeswoman for Naval Air Station Key West.
The show also will include three other military acts, including the Special Operations Command’s free-fall parachute team.
Crowds also love the civilian performances. There will be seven, including Jack Knutson and Rob Holland, who perform together as “Xtreme Firebirds Air Show.”
Chuck Aaron will fly maneuvers in the Red Bull Helo. “Malibu” Aaron is the first and only civilian pilot ever to be licensed to perform helicopter aerobatics in the United States. And Greg Shelton thrills with his wing-walking act in a red, white and blue Stearman.
There also will be a tribute to Keys aviation legend Fred Cabanas, a stunt pilot who died in a plane crash in January near Cozumel, Mexico. He traditionally opened the air show daredevil-style. He would fly his bright-yellow Pitts Special 2-C upside down, just five feet from the ground, slicing a yellow ribbon between two poles with his propellers.
Lt. Mark Tedrow, who pilots the No. 6 Hornet, said the Blue Angels have tried to not worry about the fate of the squadron for this year and focus on the immediate task of putting on a great show this weekend.
They have continued to train normally, which is a must to be able to safely fly the $26 million planes with maneuvers that leave little room for error.