Beneath the Skies Where the Angels Fly

Blue Angels arrive for winter training in January — Holtville Tribune
– Official Mission Statement (Department of the Navy) –

The mission of the United States Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron is to showcase the pride and professionalism of the United States Navy and Marine Corps by inspiring a culture of excellence and service to country through flight demonstrations and community outreach.

How do you share one of your lifelong passions in words that are adequate? Where do you even begin?

The Blue Angels have called El Centro their winter home since 1967, and for one very good reason — the perfect weather. (Flight squadrons from around the world come here to train during the winter months.)

I was a junior in high school when the Blue Angels invited my class to attend a private demonstration at Naval Air Facility El Centro (NAFEC). It was called the Shipmate program which basically was a recruiting effort to enlist students into the ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps).

The editor of the weekly newspaper was a huge fan of the Blue Angels. She had press credentials to enter the base and was permitted access to the team’s headquarters. My mother was a writer and colleague of the editor so I was allowed, on occasion, to accompany her.

The only place I couldn’t enter was the team’s ready room where they preview each flight. The pilots sit around a large table and mentally prepare for the scheduled maneuvers. They close their eyes and visualize every move of the stick — their hands simulating the precise control that allows them to fly within 36-inches of the other guy’s cockpit.

After the flight, they debrief around the table and review video of each maneuver. One by one, the pilots call out their mistakes and affirm to the officers present, “I will correct my mistakes and I’m happy to be here.”

Their discipline, dedication, and pursuit of perfection left a lifelong impression on me, and helped to mold the person I became.

– Except where noted, images courtesy of the Blue Angels –

Thunderbirds conduct annual joint training with Blue Angels at NAFEC –

About NAFEC 

Ensign Drew Verbis photo (USN) 

– Official Mission Statement (Department of the Navy) –

Our mission is to provide the highest quality facilities, services and products to the Naval Aviation community and all organizations utilizing Naval Air Facility El Centro. We provide base support to Naval Aviation Squadrons and maintain target ranges for their weapons and combat air training. We also support Marine Aviation units, air elements from the U.S. Army, Air Force units, and allied forces.

NAFEC has been in service to the country since 1942 when it was commissioned as Marine Corps Air Station El Centro. Astronaut and Senator John Glenn flew training missions here in 1946. Famed aviator Charles Lindbergh (Spirit of St. Louis) was a flight instructor at El Centro. He trained pilots in the Vought F4U Corsair — a carrier-based fighter flown during World War II and Korea.

Charles Lindbergh at MCAS El Centro (Unknown)

Charles Lindbergh at MCAS El Centro (Pioneers of Flight)

John Glenn at MCAS El Centro (Press Reader)

Air base command was transferred to the Navy after the war. In 2021, the base celebrated its 75th anniversary as a Naval air facility.

During the space program, NAFEC was designated the National Parachute Test Range (NPTR). The recovery systems for the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft were tested over the Salton Sea as seen in the NASA images below.

After the Apollo program ended, NPTR was restored as a Naval air facility. The Bureau of Land Management owns 459,000 acres due east of the Salton Sea that is utilized by the Navy as a gunnery and live bombing range.

Air squadrons from Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and NATO allies train here every year. Prince Harry was certified to fly Apache helicopters at El Centro prior to his deployment to Afghanistan in 2012.

I noted in this post that the area attracts a lot of visitors to Slab City and Salvation Mountain. The open desert range is a popular winter destination for campers and RVers who come for the warm weather, and stay to watch the Blue Angels.

The air show season begins at El Centro. After ten weeks of rigorous physical conditioning and flight training, the Blue Angels are ready for their first public performance of the year.

The pilots conduct three training flights a day, six days a week. Because they don’t wear G-suits, it is critical that they have abs of steel in order to remain conscious during high-G maneuvers. Using a special breathing technique dubbed the Hick, pilots grunt and tighten their stomach in order to keep blood flowing to their brain.

People commonly ask why the Blue Angels don’t wear G-suits. It’s because of the cockpit’s design. The control stick is located between the pilot’s legs. A gravity suit is constantly inflating or deflating as necessary. Any such movement would tilt the control stick which could be problematic as you might imagine.

2022 Festival of Flight

Due to COVID, the public demonstration was canceled in 2020 and 2021. This year, it’s back. The air show is a go on Saturday, March 12th.

The annual Blue Angels 10K Fun Run is scheduled to return next year along with the Friday night pre-show Entertainment and Food Festival (with fireworks).

Last year was also the 75th anniversary of the Blue Angels. The team transitioned to the newer Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet so El Centro will get its first public view of the new-look demonstration.


Fans may watch daily training flights at MKBlues1 and Spencer Hughes.


– Inside the cockpit with the Blue Angels –


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