The United States Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron Blue Angels kicked off the 2023 air show season with a weekend performance at Naval Air Facility El Centro, California.
Twelve thousand fans were in attendance for the public display. That’s actually a very good turnout when you consider that El Centro is a small farming community in the middle of the southwest desert. The location and great weather are the main reasons that the Blue Angels call El Centro their winter home.
By comparison, the annual 3-day event at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego averages 700,000 spectators.
The theme of this year’s Festival of Flight was 50 Years of Women in Naval Aviation. In March of 1973, eight women were admitted to the Naval flight school in Pensacola, Florida. Six of the women graduated and three were in attendance at this weekend’s festival.
Of course, everyone was excited to see the very first woman selected to serve as a Blue Angels demonstration pilot.
Press release from the Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday:
“Lt. Amanda Lee, the U.S. Navy Blue Angels first woman F/A-18 demonstration pilot, flew in her first public show during the NAF El Centro Annual Air Show. Congratulations shipmate.”
Lt. Lee was appointed as the #3 pilot which is traditionally reserved for a Marine Corps officer. The Blue Angels Public Affairs Office noted the extensive screening process that reviews all applications. Pilots must not only have the flight experience but also the physical and mental toughness to endure the exhaustive demand of intensive training and public demonstrations.
Prospective applicants are invited to attend a few shows at the end of the season to get a sense of their social skills. Do they interact well with the public? Does their personality mesh with the other pilots?
Nothing else matters if the comradery is not there.
Vice Admiral Sara Joyner wanted the public to know that Lee was not chosen because she was a woman but because she earned it. In a press release Joyner said:
She is the perfect choice. If we had to wait for the right strike fighter pilot to be the first female Blue Angel, then the wait was worth it.
When I met her for the first time, I was struck by her wonderful, unique and inspirational story, and I knew right away that she would be great both inside and outside of the jet.
She proved that she could meet the rigorous standards required in the cockpit, and combined with her personal attributes, I became convinced that she was the right aviator to be selected to join the Blues.
As she mingled with the crowd on the flight line, a fan asked Lee if she was the first woman pilot to serve with the Blue Angels.
“No,” she answered. “A woman flew their transport plane a few years ago.”
Lee was referring to U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Katie Ann (Higgins) Cook, who flew the team’s C-130 transport plane from 2014 to 2016.
A wide-eyed little girl asked Lee what she did before she joined the Navy.
“I drove a UPS truck,” she replied.
Today, she flies the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.
The video below was taken on a cloudy day. It was a practice flight to simulate the expected weather conditions this past weekend. California has been hammered by a winter-long atmospheric river that has dumped trillions of gallons of water across the state.
El Centro is known for its abundant sunshine which is ideal for flight training, but the cloudy weather presents an opportunity for the Blue Angels to demonstrate the low-altitude capabilities of the Super Hornet. No matter the conditions, fans are always thrilled. (Don’t miss the meet-and-greet at the end of the video!)
Acknowledgements: Images courtesy of U.S. Navy Blue Angels, Naval Air Facility El Centro, California
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