As I climbed into the cockpit of my F/A-18 Hornet, I was feeling a mixture of intense excitement, anticipation and, yes, a little terror. When I climbed out, 45 minutes later, I just felt honored.
Honored to have sat behind a pilot as skilled and dedicated as Lt. Keith Hoskins, honored to have been given a privileged glimpse of the Team that Lt. Hoskins represented. For although he was the man of the moment, effortlessly putting 40,000 lbs. of machinery through twists and turns, rolls and loops, he was also just the "point man" for the hundred or so men and women who make up Team Blue Angels. And, in their turn, these highly trained, dedicated and extraordinary people also just represent the thousands of others who make up the United States Navy and Marine Corps.
The Blue Angels are the public face of the U.S. Navy and as such have to be 'The Best Of The Best'. They demonstrate, on a daily basis, what it means to be an efficient and disciplined unit, training relentlessly to achieve the degree of excellence they expect from themselves. They are certainly an elite group of men and women; but they are far from "elitist". The rotation in and out every two or three years results in a constant turnover. Each rotation gives others a chance to be part of the Angels. It is grueling work and takes the members of the Team away from their homes and families in Pensacola for months at a time, so it is not for everyone. But for those who do apply, it is a chance to be part of one of the most professional and extraordinary demonstration Teams in the world: The Greatest Show On Earth!
Q. Who exactly are the Blue Angels?
Charles: Well, they are a team of over a hundred Navy men and women that comprise the premier Public Relations and recruitment program of any of the Armed Forces. They are responsible for putting in the air a flight demonstration team of six F/A-18's, the like of which you have never seen! They perform at Air Shows all over the U.S. and the world, giving a dazzling display of skilled and precision flying.
Q. Were you part of one of these shows?
Charles: No. I was fortunate enough to be taken up as a passenger on a "familiarization" flight by one of the pilots, Lt. Keith Hoskins.
Q. What kind of preparation did you have to do?
Charles: I flew down to El Centro, California where the Angels have their winter training, and stayed overnight at the local Ramada. That night I met some of the pilots and ground personnel over ribs and sodas. After a good night's rest I had a light breakfast. (that I was to see again later that morning!!) and reported to the base for my "briefing." Here my Crew Chief, Ed Primeau, explained what I was in for including a rundown on how to work my parachute should I need to "exit" the Aircraft, and the effect of "G's" on my body. "G's" are the multiples of gravitational pull you feel on your body at high speed. You know how you get thrown to one side when you corner too fast in a car at maybe, 50 mph? Well, imagine that sensation at the speed of sound!!! After that I suited up in a one-piece flight suit, climbed into my waiting Hornet, behind Lt. Hoskins, and up we soared into the wild blue yonder!
Q. What did you do?
Charles: Well, of course, I just sat there. . . in wonderment as Lt. Hoskins put us into a climb that accelerated from the deck to 6,000 ft. in about six seconds, a series of loops and rolls, a low level speed run where we came within a fraction of the sound barrier, an unbelievable run through a canyon that was straight out of Star Wars and a perfect landing. It was one heck of a kick-ass ride!
Q. So, did you or didn't you?
Charles: Oh, yes. About half way through I made the fatal error (for me) of glancing down at a monitor in the cockpit. As someone who gets horribly nauseous looking at a map in a car, I knew I had made a dreadful mistake, one that my stomach would not let me forget. But the crew chief had thoughtfully stowed some barf bags next to me, so I took care of business and tried to enjoy the rest of the flight. I had already been up for about 30 minutes at this time, so I was only feeling bad for about 10 or so minutes before we had to get back. It was well worth the price!!!
Q. Were you afraid?
Charles: No, never for a second. It just never occurred to me. The whole thing was so exhilarating and awe-inspiring. I guess my adrenaline was pumping too fast to feel scared.
Q. Could you communicate with the pilot?
Charles: Oh, yes. The pilot had a rearview mirror on me all the time and was very considerate about my well-being. When I started to get sick, he levelled out and we went on a bit of a sight-seeing trip around the Salton Sea, but I didn't want to miss out on the "fun stuff", so I could tell him I was OK over our radio.
Q. A new career?
Charles: I don't think so. It was an experience I have wanted all my life, and I would not have missed it for the world, but you have to be incredibly fit with lightening reflexes and steely focus to hurl one of those things around the sky on a daily basis. The life of an actor makes you a bit "cozy", soft around the edges; besides this old dog is just too old for those kinds of new tricks!!!
Q. Well, I'm glad you made it back in one piece. Any final word?
Charles: Just that my 40th birthday gift was my little girl, Maddy, and that remains my best gift ever......but, my 44th. . .runs a close second!!! Thank you, Blue Angels!
13 march, 1999
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