October 30, 2014
There was an undeniable absence in the sky over last year’s Chicago Air & Water Show, as a slew of Navy Blue Angels that once flew were grounded due to a rash of government budget cuts. The much-loved air troupe is back this year and looking forward to once again witnessing the Chicago sights they have yearned to see for the past two years.
“I can see the hands and faces of spectators pressed against the windows of the iconic Chicago skyline as the skyscrapers zip by our periphery,” explains Blue Angels right wing pilot Lt. Cmdr. John Hiltz.
The Chicago Sun-Times recently spoke to Hiltz and two of his Blue Angels comrades (with ties to Chicago) about flying, landing and life after the sequester.
Q. As a team, how does it feel to get back to the Chicago Air & Water Show?
Administrative Officer Lt.j.g. Phil Harper: We can’t keep the smiles off of our faces. Ever since we went back into winter training in January, we have been 110 percent ecstatic about coming back to Chicago.
Q. With so many people doing so many different duties on show days, how do you make sure you are all working as a team?
Harper: Many people assume that if you wear that light blue shirt, you are trained to fly those F18s. But truthfully, we all have our different roles. We all know each others’ positions and train in each others’ positions. If I can’t do something in air traffic control that day, there is another person that can plug right in.
Q. A highlight of many Navy Blue Angels shows has always been an appearance by the C130 Support Plane “Fat Albert,” but what is the plane’s main role throughout a show weekend?
C-130 pilot Maj. Mike Van Wyk: There is much that goes behind the scenes to get the Blue Angels to and from where they need to be. “Fat Albert” actually carries 35,000 pounds of cargo to each show, with all the gear and tools we would need to fix the aircraft, except anything involving flight control and engines. Unfortunately, I hit a bird on July 1st in “Fat Albert,” so things are still a bit in the air if we will be able to fly the [“Fat Albert”] demonstration as planned in Chicago.
Q. Onlookers are always in awe at what the Navy Blue Angels can do, but as a member of the Navy Blue Angels team, does it all become commonplace?
Van Wyk: One of the biggest things you are always fighting in aviation is complacency. Many say that aviation is 99 percent boredom and 1 percent sheer terror. When you are on a tactical mission in combat, you will get nervous. Flying an air show in front of the American people is a much more manageable type of nervousness.
Harper: We realize that not too many want to get in that back seat and see it firsthand, but we do get that chance, which is crazy for a boy who grew up in Chicago who was never interested in jets. It’s an incredible chance to do something amazing.
Q. So, you have never gotten sick while you have been up there?
Harper: I won’t say that. [Laughs]