Interview with Blue Angeles pilot C.J. Simonsen
US Navy Base - El Centro
How did you get to become a Blue? What’s the difference between you and everyone else in the entire Navy and Marine Corp?
First off, there’s no difference between me and every other pilot in the Navy and the Marine Corp; I’m an average F15 pilot. What you do is you just apply to the team. You have to have so many hours in the jet. For us, we require 1250 hours minimum. Then you apply to the team, and then it’s like a rush process, kind of like a fraternity or sorority. So you put in a package, you go to three or four shows from March to June. Then you hang out with the team, go to a brief, watch the show. You go hang out in the evenings after the shows, and they kind of see how you are socially, things like that. Basically see, ‘Hey, is this a guy we want to spend 300 days a year with?’ Because we’re together more than we are with our normal families. You know, it’s a big commitment for the team to get a new guy on the team.
Yeah. So every year we get at least six new officers—three new pilots and at least three other support officers that join us. It’s a big deal for us to get the right person, the right fit. But to answer your question, there’s no difference. I represent every other Navy and Marine Corp, you know, not only pilots, but every sailor and Marine out there. 540,000 strong. I’m just an average guy.
What was your experience before becoming a Blue? How long were you a pilot before becoming a Blue?
CJ: I started flying in 2002, flight school. I graduated from the Academy in 2002, and then went to Flight School in June of ’02. After Flight School, I went to the F18 RAG (?) which is where you learn to fly the F18. I flew Super Hornets in Japan for three years, VFA 102 out of Otsuka (?) Japan, then off the carrier USS Kittyhawk and the George Washington. We did a hull swap with the George Washington in ’08 or early ’09. From there I went to be a flight instructor in Oceana, Virginia, teaching guys how to fly the Hornet.
Interviewer: Any time in Iraq or Afghanistan?
CJ: Nope. We were the only carrier that’s fully deployed in Japan that did not go to Iraq or Afghanistan. So our mission was basically to help Japan protect themselves. And also the Chinese threat and the Korean threat. If anything were ever to happen over there, we would be the first people that would have been there to answer the call.
Interviewer: On a more fun note, from a pilot’s standpoint, watching your solo departure is quite spectacular. How fast can you get going on that take off roll before you pull? What’s the rough indicated air speed?
CJ: As (garbled word) five, I do the dirty roll, so I pull off deck at 170 knots, 6 does the high performance climbing; he’s at 300 knots when he—
Interviewer: When he pulls up, how high can he go?
CJ: We start rolling at 4,000 feet.
MB: So you bring the power back as your—otherwise, how high could you get if you left the hammer down?
CJ: You know, we ask for 10,000 feet, but we couldn’t go 10K. 6K is probably max before we’re just out of poop.
Interviewer: That’s still impressive. From pilots, we always want to know: What could it be if you really hammered it. Awesome. Loved you today.
What’s the most rewarding part about being a Blue Angel?
CJ: Hands down, just meeting the kids every single week. You know, we go to high schools every week. Every Friday we go and visit them. And we’ll give a little hour presentation, and just talk to kids about staying in school. Kind of encouraging them to study math, science, technical things. That’s what we’re lacking in this country. And so, our hope is to inspire them to look at the Navy and the Marine Corp as means of employment later on. Obviously, everybody is not going to be able to join the military, and if we can inspire them to stay in school, that’s an equal—
Interviewer: So community outreach is a big part of being a Blue.
CJ: It is.
Interviewer: Inspirational. I love that. I think that’s—it’s good to hear you say that. That’s what the Blue Angels did for me. You guys inspired me to learn how to fly. Just watching you guys made me want to fly jets and take up aviation as a career.
Interviewer: It definitely worked. I’m one of the guys that did it.
What’s the most difficult part about being a Blue Angel, just as a lifestyle? What’s the hardest part?
CJ: It’s a very grueling schedule. You know, like I said earlier, we’re gone 300 days a year. Two and a half months here in El Centro, California. Our families are in Pensacola, Florida, so you’re gone away from home a lot. For the officers on the team—for the pilots I can speak for specifically—we come from a sea tour. I was in Japan for three years, going on cruise, going on deployments. And then this is our down time, our short tour, where you’re supposed to kind of reenergize the batteries with the family, spend time with them. But this job, you’re away even more than you would be—
Interviewer: How long are you going to be with the Blues?
CJ: For me, it’s three years. For the guys in the Diamond, it’s a two-year tour. For the Solos, it’s a three-year tour, because we do the narrator advance pilot for a year—kind of a bonus year—as number 7. Then we go 6, and then 5. But, you know, that’s the hardest part, is just being away from home. The schedule is grueling, but it’s such an awesome job.
Interviewer: Worth it.
CJ: As long as you’ve got the family support at home; that makes all the difference.
Interviewer: In your performance, what’s the most difficult part for you as number 5?
CJ: Well, the opposing MRT is a tough one, where we come from behind the crowd, and we roll away from each other. We’re supposed to make it look like we hit here, and then we roll back around and hit there. It’s funny. Maneuvers come and go. Sometimes you’ll have a string of awesome hits, and then you’ll have strings of not good hits. I’m in a rut now with that maneuver, so I’m having strings of not very good hits. The high off is pretty difficult; we’re flying in formation, so it doesn’t look very difficult, but it is pretty difficult.
Interviewer: What makes those two things difficult? Is it the timing thing, of knowing right when to do—and how do you set that up?
Talking about the opposing rolling hit?
CJ: What we do is, (garbled word) 6 is on my left, and as we cross center point, in order so we don’t hit each other, I slide back. And then at a specific distance from his jet, I’m going to say, ‘Ready, hit it.’
Interviewer: So you’re talking to each other?
CJ: Yes. And then we roll away from each other. So this is a blind roll, and then I’ll get to the side of him, and then I basically fly through his jet wash there. It’s just been a maneuver lately that’s just been kicking my butt. And it’s been—
Interviewer: You’re the aft one in this case?
Interviewer: Because you’re the guy taking care of the other, newer pilot.
CJ: Correct. That’s right.
Interviewer: That’s a hard one. And what about the physical stuff? Where do you feel the most amount of physical punishment flying that jet?
CJ: The whole Solo profile is physically demanding. The Diamond guys, they demonstrate the formation, which very difficult. Those guys are great at what they do. We obviously demonstrate the maximum performance of the F18 in the whole show. We’re just—I mean you can see the sweat mark on my thigh from where it just, where my arm rests on my leg and—
Interviewer: You’re pouring down sweating.
CJ: Yeah, I mean we’ll pull at least 8 Gs. Not at least, probably around 7½ to 8 Gs each flight.
Interviewer: Which maneuver pulls the most Gs?
CJ: Well, just getting set up for all of our maneuvers, we arc at 4.6 miles from center point, so 9.2 miles away from each other. We’ll do about a 6G roll in, with a 45-degree nose low. We’ll level off at our altitude, head inbound toward each other, and then whenever we do our maneuver, it’s a 7G clear in front of the crowd. And then we do a bunch of rolls, and then we’ll do another 7G clear. And then the rendezvous with the Diamond, that’s where we’ll typically get a lot of the—but it’s something that happens behind the crowd that people don’t see, where we’re just—. Like when I do my sneak in front of the crowd, and the go join for the line of res loop (?) that rendezvous, I mean I’m going like 600 knots and they’re going 300, so I’ve got 300 knots to bleed off.
Interviewer: You need the G to kill the speed.
CJ: Exactly. So I just roll in and pull as hard as I can.
Interviewer: And physically, how do you guys prepare yourselves?
CJ: We work out 6 days a week. Because we don’t wear G suits, we’re the only jet pilots in the military that don’t wear G suits. Because of that, we are required to work out 6 days a week. Our flight surgeon has given us a workout regimen. Most of us don’t follow it; we kind of follow what we’ve been doing, basically, our whole life, which is just staying in shape and working out. And basically I move my leg work out that I would normally do Friday, I do that on Monday. Because that’s important; the legs and the abs are important to stay awake.
Interviewer: Interesting. A couple more things. From the formation standpoint, you do join up with the others and do the delta formation. What does it take to be a good leader, like the lead pilot? And who do you want to be your lead pilot? And the reverse of that. What does it take to be a good wingman? What leader would want you on their wing? How does that whole situation work between the two?
Interviewer: The way you guys kind of communicate with each other.
Interviewer: The synergy of wingman and lead, the trust level. What is that relationship like?
CJ: What makes a good lead is trust. So this whole time, we’ve had a hundred and some odd flights with this group of guys. Every time Boss tells us he is coming left or coming right, he has done that. Our trust is very, very high in Boss. The trust factor, the talent, knowing that he’s going to do what he says he’s going to do. If he says he’s coming right, he’s going to go right instead of left. Going up instead of going down. Or doing the proper ground track over the ground to do the next maneuver. That obviously builds trust over time. And then a smooth, you know someone who’s really smooth and not herky jerky, real methodical. When you’re leading six jets around, you’ve got to be real smooth and real methodical in order to get all six of us still in position as we roll out. Because we grade ourselves really hard on just the roll outs before the maneuvers. You know, we all want to be in the same position, and if you have a real quick roll out, the right side is going to get crunched; if you’re rolling out from a left turn, the left side will get spread out.
Interviewer: Is there communication on the ground, telling you guys, like, somebody needs to pull in tighter, or…
CJ: No, it’s all up in the air.
Interviewer: Is the Boss telling you the next move? I mean you guys pretty much have it memorized, but does he tell you, “OK, here’s the next move?” Does he remind you of what you’re doing?
CJ: Obviously, we alternate Diamond and Solo maneuvering, and so my job is also to keep the spacing between the maneuvers somewhat even. So, he will tell the Diamond what they’re doing next behind the crowd. I will always tell the six what we’re doing. Obviously, everybody knows what we’re doing because we’ve done this a hundred times.
Interviewer: It’s just knowing what to expect, and being predictable, being responsible and smooth, and doing it at the same rate at which things happen all the time.
CJ: And the same profile every day. Don’t change the profile—they always say profile replacement. So if you’re going to have a right hit, and you’re going to sacrifice a right hit for a good profile, do that instead of worrying about the center point hit.
Interviewer: What is the hardest part? You guys are on the road; you’re going to a new place. You’ve never been, possibly, in this new location. You’re going to do an airshow at Kansas City, and you haven’t been there before. How do you handle the “Where am I relative to what? And where is my Diamond?” Here you are blasting around at 600 knots, it can be kind of tricky to keep track of where everybody is at all times. Especially over the farm land.
Interviewer: Are you guys picking out things at a location?
CJ: Every week is the exact same. We have the exact same shell, basically, of the schedule. Every single week. Number 8 is our events coordinator, and he schedules it all. So he makes sure that from the time we wake up to the time we go to bed, things are pretty consistent. Which helps out a lot in our daily routine. We usually have a show set on Thursday, we’ll get a chart of the, a picture basically, Google Earth imagery of the air field that we’re going to be flying. And we’ll draw lines on it, which I can show you guys. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but we’ll draw lines: 1 mile, 2 miles, 3 miles, crowd right, crowd left. 30-degree ingress, egress lines. 1 mile, 2 mile, 3 mile. And Thursday, the first flight when we get there is called our circle and (garbled word) maneuver. We’ll basically go out and get all our check points.
Interviewer: Each one of you by yourself?
CJ: No, the Diamond goes out for an hour, and the Solos go out for an hour. And they’ll split up and do, you know, 1 and 2 do their thing, and then 3 and 4 do their thing. And then an hour later the Solos take off, and we do all our check points.
Interviewer: So how many practice runs do you do before that first air show at the new location?
CJ: We do a practice Thursday afternoon, and then a practice Friday, and then a show Saturday and Sunday. So the goal is for Sunday to be the best show.
Interviewer: How do you preview your show? How do you critique? Is it rankless? Anybody who sees anything they aren’t crazy about, they bring it up?
CJ: What we do, is when we’re done with the solos, we get our grades. After every maneuver. Our flight surgeon grades our maneuver and reads it to us after each maneuver.
Interviewer: Do you watch video the same day
CJ: Yes, right after. I’m going through the flight, remembering all the hits that I—and then as soon as we’re done and we land, we go to our debriefing room, and we write down all of our discrepancies, all of the grades that we got. We’ll start with safeties, you know, anything that was a safety flight issue. If you forgot a com or whatever, you know, is an example of a safety. Everyone writes out their issues and what they did wrong. And then starting with Boss, everyone goes around and talks about what they did wrong. And then we go to the tape, and then we watch the whole show. And then we’ll stop at each maneuver, and say ‘OK, the grade was a little high, but it wasn’t really a hair high. A hair is a little bit better than a little. That’s a nice hit for us. [Demonstrates] That’s a hair, that’s a little, and then that’s a full. We always strive for the perfect show, which were never ever, ever going to fly. I think that keeps us safe, because we’re so concerned about flying the perfect show and the perfect hits, week in and week out. And because you’re always striving for perfection, I think it makes a better show and a safer show.