Aerial Demonstration Teams in the U.S. Army and Marines

The Blue Angels flying in formation
••• US Air Force

When one thinks of a United States Navy (USN) aerial demonstration team, what pops to mind is likely the Blue Angels - which has been an air demonstration squadron since 1946, making them the second-oldest formal flying acrobatic team under the same name in the world, and the oldest in the United States. The Blue Angels also represent the United States Marine Corps Aviation.

The Blue Angels

The Blue Angels were formed at the end of World War II. The team started out flying a trio of Grumman F6F-5 Hellcats in formation, shortly thereafter upgrading to the F8F-1 Bearcat. The performance routine would later evolve the demonstration routine to include 4, then 5 aircraft.

  • In 1949, the team advanced to jets in the form of the Grumman F9F-2 Panther. In order to move personnel and equipment to and from show sites, they also obtained the Douglas R4D Sky Train
  • In 1950, the Blue Angels team was temporarily disbanded due to the Korean War, but was reestablished in October 1951 and upgraded to the Grumman F9F-5 Panther and also traded the R4D Sky Train for the Curtiss R5C Commando. In late 1954, the Blue Angels received their first Marine Corps pilot, as well as transitioned to the Grumman F9F-8 Cougar.
  • In 1956, the Blue Angels added a sixth aircraft to the flight demonstration and gave their first performance outside the United States at the International Air Exposition in Toronto, Canada.  As well, they also upgraded from the R5C Commando logistics aircraft to the Douglas R5D Skymaster.
  • In 1957, the team transitioned to the Grumman F11F-1 Tiger (first flying the short-nosed, and then the long-nosed versions).
  • In 1968 the team traded in the R5D Skymaster transport aircraft for the C-121J Constellation.
  • In 1969, the Blue Angels upgraded to the McDonnell Douglas F-4J Phantom II in 1969, as well as upgrading to the C-121 Super Constellation.  (Side note:  The F-4 was the only plane to be flown by both the Blues Angels and the Air Force Thunderbirds – though the Thunderbirds used the F-4E)
  • In 1970, the logistics aircraft was transitioned to the Lockheed KC-130F Hercules, manned by an all-Marine crew.
  • In 1974 the Blue Angels downsized to the Douglas A-4F Skyhawk II and was reorganized into the Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron.
  • In 1975, the KC-130 was first used to demonstrate Jet-Assisted Take-Off (JATO).
  • In 1986, the Blue Angels transitioned to their current aircraft - McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet.
  • Since 1992, the Blue Angels have had two successive C-130 support/logistics aircraft named “Fat Albert”.  Fat Albert I was a TC-130G and Fat Albert II is a C-130T. At some air shows featuring the team, Fat Albert takes part, performing flyovers and demonstrating its capability for short take-offs (it also used to demonstrate its rocket-assisted takeoff (RATO) capabilities but due to dwindling supplies of rockets this practice was dropped in 2009).
  • And, in July 2014, the first female pilot joined the Blue Angels.

Currently, the Blue Angels demonstration routine consists of 6 aircraft split into "the Diamond" (Blue Angels 1 through 4) and the Opposing Solos (Blue Angels 5 and 6).  However, there are a total of 10 jets - two F/A-18 A models, five F/A-18 C models (these are single-seat aircraft), one F/A-18 B and two F/A-18 D models (two-seat aircraft).  Normally, the six jets are used during demonstration flights are the single-seat versions, and the rest stand-by as spares, in the case that one of the main aircraft is unserviceable and cannot be repaired before the show begins.

On the manning side of the equation, there are 126 Navy and Marine Corps personnel assigned to the Blue Angels – 16 officers, 110 enlisted. There have been three other aircraft associated with the Blue Angels team: The North American SNJ Texan, which was used to simulate a Japanese A6M Zero aircraft in demonstrations during the 1946 season. The Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star, which was used in the early and mid-1950s as a VIP transport aircraft for the team.

The Vought F7U Cutlass. The team had received two F7Us in late 1952 and they were flown as a side demonstration during the 1953 season.  However, the F7U was not a part of the regular Blue Angel formations (at that time the team used the F9F Panther). The pilots and ground crew found the craft to be unsatisfactory and plans to use it as the team's primary aircraft was canceled.

But the Blue Angels aren’t the only aerial demonstration team the Navy has ever had… just the first officially sanctioned aerial demonstration team.  Though I’m sure there were more, previous aerial demonstration teams include:

The Three Sea Hawks

The Three Sea Hawks – First performing in January 1928, the team consisted of three Boeing F2B-1 and F2B-2 fighters in San Francisco. Because of their seemingly risky performance, the public called them the "Suicide Trio".

The High Hatters, The Three Gallant Souls, and the Three Flying Fish

The High Hatters – formed in the late 1920s, and performing mostly on the west coast, this team flew three Boeing F2B-1 fighters, from the VF-1B squadron based on CV- 3 USS Saratoga.  The High Hatters were disbanded at the beginning of the 1930s. The Three Gallant Souls – formed in 1929, this team began using the Curtiss F6C-4 fighters, transitioned to Boeing F4B-1 airplanes in 1930, and then in 1931 flew the Boeing F2B-1 fighters.  This team is noted as having been the last remaining aerial performance team before World War II. The Three Flying Fish – formed in 1930, and performing mostly on the east coast, this team flew the Curtiss F6C-4.  This team was disbanded in early 1931.

The Gray Angels

The Gray Angels – this short-lived Marine Aerial Performance team was formed in 1948 flying the McDonell FH-1 Phantom.  The Gray Angels are noted as being the first US aerobatic display team flying jet aircraft.

The Marine Phantoms (aka Flying Leathernecks)

Also referred to as the “Flying Leathernecks”, this team was the successor to the Gray Angels.  Formed in 1949, this Marine Aerial Performance team flew the McDonell FH-1 Phantom.  This squadron was formed out of VMF-122 Squadron at Cherry Point, first flying the standard VMF-122 colors, and later (September 1949) flying new paint scheme of overall sea blue with yellow trim. In 1950, the team transitioned to the McDonell F2H-1 Banshee. The Marine Phantoms were disbanded when the Korean War erupted.

The Albino Angels

Formed after the end of the Korean War, this team flew the Douglas A-4D Skyhawk. Another short-lived team, the Albino Angels were disbanded after only two aerial demonstrations. The team had the distinction of being the only aerobatic demonstration team to open their routine by being launched from an aircraft carrier.

The Air Barons

Formed in mid-1958, this team’s main role was to represent the Naval Air Reserve forces.  When first established, the Air Barons flew the Grumman F9F-6 Cougar, and through the team’s existence, it transitioned to the North American FJ-4B Fury (in the new designation system adopted in 1962, the FJ-4B became the AF-1E), followed by the Douglas A-4B Skyhawk (and A-4L model). It wasn’t until late 1968 that the team received official status as a flight demonstration team. 

One of the routines the Air Barons were noted for in their public performances was an air to air refueling.  All pilots on the team were ex-regular naval pilots (pilots in reserve), and as such were all civilian citizens - inspiring the team's motto: "Twice a Citizen". Due to the team's parent squadron (VA-209) being disbanded - leaving the Air Barons without aircraft and support - at the end of 1971, this unique aerobatic team was also disbanded.