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Blue Angels stunt pilot talks about his high-flying line of work

Lieutenant-Commander Brandon Hempler, lead solo flyer for the United States Navy Blue Angels, took some time to chat with Kings County News about the life of a stunt pilot.
Lieutenant-Commander Brandon Hempler, lead solo flyer for the United States Navy Blue Angels, took some time to chat with Kings County News about the life of a stunt pilot. - Sam Macdonald
GREENWOOD, N.S. —

Jet engines in full flight rumble and roar through the open air above 14 Wing CFB Greenwood.

Lieutenant-Commander Brandon Hempler (No. 5), lead solo flyer for the United States Navy Blue Angels, is among the pilots who take to the sky to put on spectacular aerial shows of skill for fans.

Hempler, despite the heavy rain on Aug. 29, went about preparations for the weekend’s air show on the base.

Hempler stressed the importance of teamwork in all things to do with the Blue Angels.
“It takes every bit of our team to get a flight demonstration going, including pilots, crew chiefs and narrators,” he said.

The day begins with crew chiefs getting the airplanes ready to go, making sure every single detail is accounted for,  from the engines to the condition of the cockpit.
Once in the air, the pilots perform a litany of maneuvers, from breaks that see pilots splitting apart, to acrobatic-looking moves like the squirrel cage, double squirrel cage and the edge-of-your-seat crowd pleaser, the knife-edge pass.

Although there were too many for Hempler to go into a great deal of detail on, he spoke succinctly on what audience members see at each show, saying, “we (do a) bunch of maneuvers meant to make it look like the aircraft are about to hit each other.”

“We’ll fly about 25 to 30 maneuvers in the diamond formation, and then we all end up as a Blue Angel delta, where all six aircraft do different maneuver.”

This eventually culminates in the Fleur De Lis, a dramatic maneuver with all crafts flying in tandem in wide, sweeping arcs, painting the sky with parallel contrails like aerial artists.

“Fans really like the Delta breakout,” Hempler said. “It’s popular with crowds, how we break out and make it look like a starburst pattern.”

Kings County News’ conversation about the Labour Day weekend show at Greenwood Airforce Base took place sheltered under an awning from the rainy weather – something no pilot is happy to see.

“The weather wasn’t quite what we were looking for today, but the good thing is Friday Saturday and Sunday are going to be beautiful,” Hempler said.


GROUNDWORK

Good weather is essential for the demonstration the Blue Angels put on, but for Crew Chief Aviation Ordinance second class (A02) Aldriick Kittles, weather makes little difference in the meticulousness of his job demands.

The crew chiefs are called upon to have a grasp of everything to do with each bold, blue jet in the team’s fleet, from the firing of the engines to the bold blue and yellow paint jobs.
“The pilot doesn’t know what’s going on with the jet. We brief him on everything. It’s a lot of trust,” Kittles said. “In the regular military, the pilots do their own pre-flight checks, so they basically troubleshoot.”
Troubleshooting, in the case of the Blue Angels, is the responsibility of Kittles and the other crew chiefs.

“We set up the cockpit, make sure all the display screens work, and check all the parts of the jet, including both engines.” Kittles said. “We are also responsible for making sure the auto-flight control works, and beautification.”

Although he acknowledged that protocol entails a lot of things to remember, Kittles said he wouldn’t describe it as stressful.

“We have a lot of training, we do everything by the book. We know exactly what we have to do.”


LONG TIME NO SEE
Hempler said the air show weekend marked his first visit to Nova Scotia, and one of the first times in a while the Blue Angels have performed in the province.
“I’d hear about Nova Scotia as a kid, and you know, I’d always be thinking it was tundra up here,” Hempler, a native of Wamego, Kansas, said with a chuckle.
“I think it’s great to have this brotherhood with Canada, where we can come and exchange forces. We’re very good friends with the (The Canadian Forces) Snowbirds. It’s awesome.”

Hempler was enthusiastic about visiting Nova Scotia, noting, “it’s awesome. We’re having lobster, my parents are here. We’re just having a lot of fun.”


PREPARATIONS

Hempler and the other pilots of the Blue Angels would go on later on Thursday to start their initial preparations for the air show, eventually taking to the sky when the ugly weather let up.
Part of that protocol includes a number of circle flights to make sure everything was where they expected it to be, in terms of air strips and the landings and takeoffs they’d be used for.

“We compare what’s there with our Google maps to find the checkpoints we found. We actually go through a full practice,” Hempler said. “We take those check points and everything we learned from morning flights and fly a demonstration. And then, every day from there from then on out, we’re doing demonstrations.”

The Blue Angels fly demonstrations with a fleet of six F18 Hornets in the skilled hands of a group of six members of a 16-person  volunteer team composed of United States Marine Corps and Navy Pilots.

Sam.macdonald@kingscountynews.ca

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