The supersonic age has produced a new and remarkable sport: fast and close acrobatic flying in jet planes. It is the most expensive and exclusive of sports. It is also the most exacting and dangerous. A few of the millions who see the Navy's flying Blue Angels enjoying this acrobatic sport at weekly air shows would like to try it themselves, but will never get the chance. In fact, at present there are no jets available to civilians. Moreover, rarely anyone could afford to pay either the $400,000 cost of one of the Blue Angels' supersonic Grumman Cougar jets or $1.50 a minute for fuel.
Each member of the six-man Blue Angel team must be able to hold his spot a scant five feet between planes in formation as the team rolls and loops, flies on its side and upside down at speeds up to 600 mph and at times only 100 feet off the ground. Though outwardly the Blue Angels pooh-pooh the risks, each of them knows there is a very slim margin for error. The Angel who feels a sneeze coming on will often ease out of formation to play it safe. In nine years three Angels have crashed, and another had to bail out while flying out of control at supersonic speed. Because it is touch-and-go-work, each new member is judged not only on his flying skill but also on how he fits socially with the rest of the team on the ground. The Navy brass may propose a new member, but the Angels have the final say.
"They've got to get along together," said Russell Peck, an ex-Navy flyer, after gawping at the contemporary Angels in their first 1955 show at El Centro, Calif. "The way they rub wings up there at 500 miles an hour, one dreamer or boozer would bust up the whole show. If I was a Blue Angel, I couldn't sleep nights unless the rest of the team was chained to my bed."
At briefing session, Team Leader Commander Richard Cormier (center) advises Blue Angels, "Play it loose in these new planes." At right, with water streaming from tip tanks, four Angels sweep into their hardest trick: an echelon roll at 500 mph which climaxes with planes flying upside down five feet apart.
Wings overlapping and the cockpit of the trailing plane only five feet below the fuselage of the lead plane, the Blue Angels start up into a loop at 550 miles an hour. The four planes will maintain this tight formation throughout a mile-high loop.