by Bill Blake
Published in Midwest Flyer – August/September 2019 issue
The Sun ‘n Fun Fly-In, held each year in Lakeland, Florida, was blessed with good weather the week of April 2-7, 2019, and attendance was excellent! The most exciting part of this year’s event for me was the opportunity to get up close to the members of the U.S. Navy Blue Angels Demonstration Squadron as the group arrived together in tight formation.
The Blue Angels was initially formed in 1946, making it the second oldest formation flying aerobatic team in the world, after only the French Patrouille de France formed in 1931.
Members of the media were taken to the aircraft ramp used to park the F/A-18 Hornets prior to the show. We were in place to watch first the arrival of the C-130T Hercules support aircraft, affectionately called “Fat Albert.” The C-130 carried 42 members of the ground support unit to the show. We then watched the six F/A-18 Hornets flown in the show land. A seventh aircraft, which is used for media and V.I.P. flights, was already in place.
We were then divided into small groups, with each group escorted to a different aircraft. The pilots were standing next to their aircraft waiting to be interviewed. The group I was in met with Maj. Jeff Mullins of the United States Marine Corps.
Maj. Mullins came from a flying family. His father flew Army helicopters in Vietnam, and his brother was also a pilot. Maj. Mullins started flying when he was 15, and today he flys #4 Blue Angel, the slot position.
Maj. Jeff Mullins is a native of Memphis, Tennessee, and graduated from Saint Benedict at Auburndale High School in 2004, where he lettered in wrestling and track. He attended Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Professional Aeronautics in 2006. He earned his commission as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps through the Platoon Leader’s Course in 2006, and reported to The Basic School at Marine Corps Base (MCB) Quantico, Virginia, to complete training. Maj. Mullins reported to Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola, Florida, for aviation indoctrination in May 2007.
He completed primary flight training in the T-34C Turbo Mentor at NAS Whiting Field, Florida, and completed intermediate and advanced flight training in the T-45C Goshawk at NAS Meridian, Mississippi. He earned his wings of gold in July 2009. He then reported to Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 125, the “Rough Raiders,” at NAS Lemoore, California, for initial training in the F/A-18 Hornet. Since then, Maj. Mullins has flown more than 500 combat hours and supported numerous operations and exercises in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Japan, Guam, the Philippines, Korea and Thailand. He joined the Blue Angels in September 2017, and has accumulated more than 2,200 flight hours and has 26 carrier arrested landings. His decorations include 11 Strike Flight Air Medals, two Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals, and various personal and unit awards.
To fly with the Blue Angels, pilots must be physically fit. Major Mullins explained that unlike the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, the Blue Angels do not wear G suits, believing the suits would interfere with maneuvering their aircraft. Not wearing a G suit means the pilot must have a very strong core to withstand the 7 G turns performed during routines. Additionally, each aircraft has been modified to require 40 pounds of back pressure to hold the control stick in its neutral position. Maj. Mullins said that the modification helped them perform precise maneuvers.
Prior to the beginning of the show season, the team trains in El Centro, California. Pilots are assigned to the team for 2 years. Extensions are not allowed. Therefore, each year 50% of the team is new. The team is based in Pensacola, Fla., so, they were close to home at Sun ‘n Fun.
The new team starts out with just the basics and builds from there. As the year goes on, the new pilots become more proficient and all of the pilots become more confident in themselves and other members of the team. Gradually, the formation gets tighter and their aircraft are flying at less than 18 inches apart.
The Blue Angels are truly team dependent. In addition to the 12 pilots on the team, there are 42 support personnel. On show days, the pilots walk to their aircraft and takeoff without doing any kind of preflight, relying on the aircraft crew chiefs to have the aircraft in perfect condition to fly the mission.
Major Mullins had to apply to join the Blues, as do all members of the team. An intense screening process is involved in the selection process. Maj. Mullins said he applied because he wanted to represent the military to the civilian population and encourage others to volunteer for military service. He has enjoyed his time with the team, but come November, he is looking forward to re-joining the fleet to protect his country.
Talking with and observing members of the Blue Angels made me proud of the men and women serving in our armed forces. I will continue to thank them for their service whenever the opportunity arises, and I hope you will do the same.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Bill Blake, formerly of Peoria, Illinois, and now Sarasota, Florida, is an active pilot and aircraft owner, as is his wife, Nancy. Prior to retiring, Blake was the AOPA Great Lakes Regional Representative (1999 to 2011), and Director of the Division of Aeronautics for the State of Illinois (1992-99). Bill Blake flew the CH-34 helicopter in the U.S. Army assigned to the East-West German border during the Cold War. He retired with the rank of colonel. Later he was a contract negotiator for the Office of Naval Research in Washington, D.C.