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Blue Angels maintenance teams prepare for 2014 season

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PENSACOLA, Fla. -- As the U.S. Navy Blue Angels gear up for this year's air shows, a group of unsung heroes will place their job dedication and professionalism on the line prior to each aircraft's departure.

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The pilots of the U.S. Navy's elite Flight Demonstration Squadron are the first to say that the aerobatic jets they fly really belong to the mechanics and technicians who keep them operational each day.

They maintain the existing aircraft with new parts at their home at Naval Air Station Pensacola, while testing new aircraft systems prior to and during an air show to keep the high performance aircraft reliable.

The maintenance and supply teams are made up of nearly a hundred enlisted men and women of the Navy and Marines who bring special job qualities to maintain the aircraft.

Seven F/A-18 Hornet jets, each painted with a high gloss blue and yellow paint job, and a C-130 Hercules transport aircraft, affectionately known as "Fat Albert", will take to the skies for each air show during the 2014 season.

As the Gulf breeze blew across on the flight line, this aerospace reporter spoke with two of the Navy's most experienced engineers about the demands of their jobs -- both at home and away.

"I take care of that aircraft, making sure that everything is good for it's pilot," Aviation Ordinance First Class Eli Lang, the crew chief for the Angel 7 jet, said with a smile of pride. "My job details engine tune-up operations, check the flight control instruments and check though the pre- and post-flight inspections of the aircraft on a day-to-day basis."

Blue Angels Aviation Electrician Tyler Nuhfer said, "When you pull an all nighter to get the plane ready for the next day, it's a very big sense of accomplishment. When you get that jet off for an air show it's a really great feeling."

As the Hornets are put through the routines above, on the ground, the maintenance crews observe with binoculars and later record post-flight analysis to ensure the jets are performing as expected.

AE1 Nuhfer explained, "No air show has been cancelled due to a maintenance issue since the Blue Angels began in 1946. That's a huge bragging right we have on the enlisted side, keeping the aircraft in the air."

The Blue Angels will return to the air show circuit March 15 following a year off due to the government's 2013 sequestration. Today, the maintenance crews are preparing for the eight month season by working long hours as the Hornets are put through a strict practice schedule at their winter home at the Naval Air Facility at El Centro in southern California.

During this time, the Blue Angels team will work as one as the pilots practice for their first air show of 2014 at El Centro. The six Hornets will practice the speeds and maneuvers of each demonstration timed by the tick of the clock.

It's this dedication to detail which keeps the entire team ready during performance week.

"This is a good experience for anybody to have to come together from across the naval fleet to work together," AO1 Lang said.

The maintenance team are veterans who served aboard aircraft carriers for multiple years before volunteering to serve with the Blues.

2014 will see the team travel to show sites in Hawaii, California, Tennessee and Washington to name a few. The team will also perform a traditional fly over during the Naval Academy graduation ceremony in May.

"When we go to an air show, we take about forty team members with us," Nuhfer explained. "We arrive a day early to get everything set up as far as support equipment, and learn what hanger will we work out of and then the pilots fly in. We are there to support them until the air show starts."

Each 56-foot long Hornet carries 11,000 pounds of fuel to stay aloft for a nearly 45 minute performance.

The aircraft also endures untold stress during parts of the aerobatic performance as they pull up to 7G's (seven times one gravity). One demonstration has the jets soar upside down at over 400 m.p.h while only eighteen inches apart from another Hornet.

Although the jets can soar past the speed of sound, the Blue Angels keep their aircraft from going super sonic over land as not to crack windows of homes or cars on the ground.

A long time aviation electrician, Nuhfer discussed his role with the Blues, "The whole F/A-18 is practically fly by wire. Anything that has a wire going to it, we fix."

"Flight controls are not cables going to your surfaces but it's wires that go to a sensor that tells a computer to move a surface. Anything from the fuel, to flight controls, air speed, everything is wired and keeps us busy," Nuhfer continued. "We have the oldest jets in the Navy, some are 20 to 30 year old jets, that makes the wires that much older and that much easier to break."

As you listen to both Lang and Nuhfer talk about their jobs, one can hear the pride in their voices as they discuss just how they prepare each jet to go dazzle the crowds.

Nuhfer calls it an honor to work with the Blue Angels, and one of the last traditions still around in the Navy.

Lang echoed the sentiments of the team by saying, "We did our job to make these aircraft get in the air for the American public see what we have here, and it's satisfying to see the smiles on the children's faces as they utter 'Ooh and Aah's' during each show."

(Charles Atkeison reports on aerospace, science and technology. Follow his updates via Twitter @AbsolutSpaceGuy.)

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