Friday, September 07, 2012

TOP STORY >> Blue Angels aim high

Leader staff writer

The Navy Blue Angels coasted to a stop on the flight line at Little Rock Air Force Base on Thursday morning, but not before showing off a few stunts.

They are headlining the 2012 Heritage and Heroes Open House and Air Show today and Sunday. The show starts at 10 a.m.

Capt. Greg McWherter, a native of Atlanta, emerged from the No. 1 jet Thursday and started sweating bullets from the intense sunshine and humidity that greeted the pilots.

He is the “Boss,” the commanding officer for the Blue Angels. The chief of naval air training selects the “Boss,” who must have commanded a tactical jet squadron and have at least 3,000 tactical jet flight hours.

McWherter joined the Blue Angels in 2008 and was here for the show that year. He has been in the Navy for 22 years.

McWherter explained how the Blue Angels do what they do.

He said, “Most people associate the Blue Angels with six demonstration pilots. We’re actually 130 sailors and Marines all working together nonstop to put on the great show that they’re going to see this weekend and we practice the building blocks. Whether it’s the pilots or the maintainers, we learn some of the very basic techniques. We refine them and tweak them to give them a little bit more entertainment value. But basically, the same things you’ll see out here this weekend are things any Navy and Marine Corps aviator can do given the extra training. You ask how we do it.

“(The answer is) a lot of focus, teamwork and trust and tons of practice.“

McWherter said the air show has many functions.

“It’s education, recruiting and really along the way we want to hopefully inspire folks to get fired up about what we do in the Navy and the Marine Corps. When it comes to education, the average taxpayer doesn’t get a chance to go out to an aircraft carrier or ride in a tank, and they don’t get a chance to see firsthand what their sailors and Marines are doing on a daily basis,” he said.

“We can be in their backyard doing an air show and show them firsthand that pride and professionalism. That’s a great way to pay back the American taxpayer,” McWherter continued.

He said the best thing about the show is meeting and greeting the audience, which is expected to be 250,000 people strong.

“We love flying. We love visiting the community, but my favorite part of every air show is talking to folks in the crowd before and after the show. It’s a lot of fun. The questions you get from folks young and old is just amazing. It gets you excited. You forget how neat the U.S. military is for folks who don’t see it on a daily basis,” McWherter said.

He added that being at LRAFB is something special

“We send our C-130 aircraft here to get modifications and work done on repairs every year. We really rely on the men and women on this base to help us accomplish our mission. It’s really great to be able to bring our team here to show them what they’re supporting. That is fantastic,” McWherter said.

Petty Officer First Class Jeremy Green, a native of Hope, was happy to be back in his home state. This is his second year with the Blue Angels, working on life-support systems, such as ejector seats and oxygen tanks.

Green said, “There’s nothing more exciting then getting to come home. I grew up on a farm and trying to explain the things I do in the Navy is a little hard. So they can come out here and see. ‘Oh, OK, there’s a jet, I see what he’s talking about.’ Pulling chalks out from under the tires, you know things like that.”

Green said his job is “fun. It becomes second nature.”

Being with the Blue Angels has required him to do things that aren’t related to life support, such as engine changes. That kind of work requires four people, he said.

Green said he joined the Blue Angels because “who wouldn’t want to?”

He continued, “The best part of the whole show, for me, is when we get to stand out front and you know you’re right there in front of the friends and family section and they announce your name and where you’re from. It makes you feel proud.”

Green joked that his family and friends probably wouldn’t make it to Saturday’s performance because they will be going to the Razorbacks game.

He comes back home at least twice a year to hunt and fish. His 7-year-old daughter, Allison, likes squirrel hunting, Green said.

Being enlisted has its challenges, he said.

“The hardest thing for me was I did an eight-month deployment on the U.S.S. Roosevelt early in my career. When I left my daughter, she was six months old, and she was just getting to where she could take her first step. She was walking early, and I think she did it for me. The hardest thing was just the thought of her learning and growing and not being there to see it,” Green said.

Service members interested in being Blue Angels have to apply for the job.

McWherter said, “We’re very selective about who we pick. We think that every sailor and Marine can do this. They all bring an incredible amount of skill. They bring a passion for serving their country and an incredible gift for telling the story about what the Navy and Marine Corps do.

“But (what is) most important for us is the team dynamic. We need to bring people to this team who help contribute to a very healthy team environment. We spend the better part of 300 to 320 days a year together on the road traveling. We have to get along. Everything we do is based on trust and teamwork,” he said.

As for the weather, McWherter said it does play a role in how the Blue Angels prepare for an event.

“As a commanding officer, I think about how it affects the entire team. As our men and women are out here working on the aircrafts day in and day out, we want to make sure they can get out of the sunshine and have plenty of water. The hotter it is the more fatigue sets in and the more we worry about dehydration. Jets generally like cool, clean, calm air,” he said.

This year, McWherter said, the military is commemorating the War of 1812 bicentennial.

“Two hundred years ago our country went to war to defend open access to the seas and that was the first time the American public saw the vital importance of a strong Navy,” he said.

“The interesting thing is that 200 years later, we’re still fighting piracy on the open seas. We’re still combating terrorism and fighting for freedom around the globe. The same boldness, ingenuity and courage that defined our sailors and Marines 200 years ago still resonates in the sailors and Marines you’ll see this weekend,” McWherter said.

He said performing in an air show is “like riding a roller coaster. Your body gets used to it. It’s a very strenuous workout.”

Even the Blue Angels’ uniforms have a purpose, McWherter said.

“It’s a traditional uniform. We like it. You get kind of used to it. We represent the Navy and Marine Corps. We all need to be in uniform. We need to look fit. This uniform makes you stay in shape,” he said with a laugh.

McWherter didn’t become interested in the Blue Angels until later in his career when a friend suggested he apply for a position with them. But he knew what he wanted to do with his life at an early age.

“I grew up loving all things aviation. I think I was a standard kid. Things that went fast and made noise excited me. When I was in high school, I saw a movie called ‘Top Gun’ and I said, ‘That’s it. I want to go out to an aircraft carrier. I want to be a naval aviator, shoot some missiles, drop some bombs, do all that,’” McWherter said.

The lineup for both days, in order, is the Canadian Skyhawks, Mike Rinker, the Canadian Force’s CF-18, the flash fire jet truck, John Klatt Airshows, Airfield Seizure (AR National Guard, USASOC Black Daggers/C-130 Cargo Drop/Mass Paratrooper Drop), the Ladies for Liberty, the Air Combat Command Heritage Flight (F-4/P-47), Otto, Mike Rinker again, the U.S. Navy Super Hornet, John Klatt Airshows-Max Adrenaline, the DAV B-25, Fat Albert and the Blue Angels.