By MATT KOESTERS
Years ago as a college student, A.J. Harrell made his way to Louisville from Indianapolis and was blown away by one of the world’s biggest fireworks displays. This year, he returns to Thunder Over Louisville as part of one of the weekend’s main attractions.
Harrell, now a U.S. Marine Corps captain, is the pilot of Fat Albert, the Blue Angels’ C-130 cargo plane.
“When I found out we were going to get a chance to come here and fly, it took me back to that moment. It’s very exciting,” Harrell said. “It’s definitely going to be a highlight of the year for me, being here, being a part of this and actually performing. Having seen it from the ground, and looking up and watching it all go down, and seeing the fireworks, I’m definitely excited to see it from the other angle.”
The Blue Angels are the U.S. Navy’s flight demonstration squadron, known for exciting aerial acrobatics and precision formation flight. Based out of Pensacola, Fla., during show season, the Blue Angels have set up shop at the Kentucky Air National Guard Base in Louisville for the weekend.
Harrell and Fat Albert will kick off the Blue Angels’ demonstration with a 10-minute display of the big plane’s capabilities, followed by the squadron’s signature F/A-18 Hornets flying solo and in formation. The terrain of the Ohio River and the surrounding shores present a challenging environment for the Blue Angels, Harrell said.
“This air show gives us a very dynamic show site that’s different — a lot of bridges are different, flying over water’s different, flying over the city’s different,” Harrell said. “Here, we have all of those things together. There’s a lot to look at, a lot to think about, a lot to keep up with. But it’s great. It keeps us on the edge of our seats, and hopefully it keeps everybody else on the edge of their seats.”
Four Blue Angels Hornets will fly in a diamond formation, as two others show off the F/A-18’s maneuverability and speed. The team will conclude its demonstration with a six-jet “delta” formation. The need for precision is paramount.
“Sometimes you only have a few brief seconds to catch a landmark on the ground or another aircraft in the air. Those seconds matter,” Harrell said. “Precision is definitely key, and it’s something we have to adapt to and strive to when we come here and learn how to fly these aircraft.”
The Blue Angels weren’t able to perform at Thunder last year because of federal sequestration cuts. The excitement at the base Thursday as the squadron prepared to practice was a welcome departure from the norm.
“It’s the best time of year for us,” said Mike Johnson, Sellersburg, a tech sergeant with the Air National Guard. “It keeps us busy, entertained, and it’s fun to watch that kind of stuff, seeing airplanes actually doing more entertaining things than just normal business.”
Johnson and his Air National Guard peers don’t have to do much to help with the Angels’ F/A-18s. In addition to the planes and pilots, the Angels bring a staff of about 45 crew members dedicated to keeping the aircraft airborne and in top condition. And given the competition that comes with earning a spot with the Blue Angels, it’s a given that the best sailors possible are on the job.
“We haven’t had a show missed for maintenance in our history, and we’re not about to start now,” said Petty Officer First Class Mark Prescott.
The Blue Angels are scheduled to fly 68 performances at 35 locations in North America during the 2014 season after a year-long hiatus. The mission of the Blue Angels is “to showcase the pride and professionalism of the United States Navy and Marine Corps by inspiring a culture of excellence and service to our country through flight demonstrations and community outreach,” according to a Blue Angels news document.
“Every time I see one take off, it makes you feel like a kid again,” Johnson said. “You can’t help but watch. I love it.”