NAVAL AIR FACILITY EL CENTRO — Climbing out of the cockpits of the 56-foot-long blue and yellow jets, the group of pilots made their way to the crowd that formed along the chain link fence.
Dressed in bright blue jumpsuits, the U.S. Navy’s flight demonstration team pilots greeted local dignitaries and Blue Angel honorary team members with smiles, handshakes and the occasional hug as the group arrived to start its winter training at the local Navy facility.
It was great to be back in the Valley, where the Blue Angels make their winter home, said Lt. C.J. Simonsen, lead solo pilot. Training will start later this week and the sounds of the F/A-18 Hornets will soon fill the air over cities and rural areas.
Through the next 10 weeks the Blue Angels team will transition from flying feet away from each other to having their jets within inches of each other as they prepare for the start of air show season March 10 here.
It’s going to be hard work both physically and mentally, Simonsen said. With 15 practice flights scheduled each week and flying six days a week it’s going to be rigorous training. However, you can’t beat the conditions, he said with a smile in the near-80-degree weather.
The coming 2 1/2 months won’t only be about training, but also about team bonding, he said.
“The most important thing is the trust that we build with one another,” he said. “We need to know, 100 percent without a doubt, what the other guy is going to do. When we fly 18 inches apart, you don’t have time to guess ‘What is he going to do next? Is he coming right? Is he coming left?’
“This is where it all starts,” he added.
Simonsen, who is in his third and final year on the Blue Angels team, will have plenty of work to do this year teaching the opposing solo pilot and learning a new formation, he said. He’s also the team’s operations officer and has to make sure the year runs smoothly.
“It’s a very exciting year, but it’s a lot of responsibility,” he said.
The Blue Angel pilots are regular Navy and Marine Corps pilots who are given a great opportunity, he added.
“We’re just so excited to be able to wear these blue flight suits and being able to represent those 500,000 sailors and marines out there on a weekly basis,” he said. “And it all starts here in El Centro, which we are so excited about and very proud to come back to our second home.”
The Blue Angel pilots weren’t the only ones happy the team arrived on base.
“We look forward to the Blues returning every year,” said base Public Affairs Officer Michelle Dee. “We’re excited to have them back in town.”
It’s great to have the Blue Angels back, agreed Gaylla Finnell, president and treasurer of the Imperial Valley Council of Navy League. The Imperial Valley is the team’s winter home, and the residents here kind of becomes the team’s family away from their Pensacola, Fla., home base.
“They’re certainly a part of the Imperial Valley and our history,” she said. “When they arrive the feeling is everything’s right with the world. They’re back.”
Staff Writer Elizabeth Varin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 760-337-3441.