Despite the numerous changes the coronavirus has brought to the airshow circuit this year, the Blue Angels transition to the Super Hornet appears to be on schedule.
In an interview with WEAR, VX-23 Flight Test Project Officer Lt. Sean Cawley said the first F/A-18E Super Hornet for the Blues is now undergoing testing and evaluation at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland. NAS Pax River, as it is commonly called, is the Navy’s test and evaluation center and houses several simulators and evaluation technologies that have been used in the Blue’s transition program.
Work to transition the Blues to Super Hornets began in 2015, with the first flights in 2016. In addition to proving out necessary aircraft modifications, former Blue Angel pilots spent many hours in simulators developing a new routine that is a good fit for the new jet. Test pilots from VX-23 flew real aircraft with special instrumentation to further analyze the flight characteristics.
The former display pilots have stated in previous interviews that by shortening the show slightly and re-choreographing portions of it, they were able to reduce expected fatigue on the airframes significantly. This will lead to less wear and tear over a show season and a longer useful life for the aircraft with only minimal difference to the crowd.
Based on the flight testing with VX-23, the Super Hornets destined for the Blue Angels are receiving specific modifications to get the jets ready for airshow performances:
- The control stick has been modified with a spring that forces the pilot to constantly exert pressure, even in level flight. This assists with smooth formation flying.
- The M61A2 20 mm Gatling gun that is found in the nose of the Super Hornet is being replaced with a smoke system.
- The landing gear is being altered to let the pilots fly with gear extended at faster-than-usual air speeds of up to 300 knots and with more G loading.
- An inverted fuel system is being added so that the jets can fly upside-down for longer periods than stock Super Hornets.
- The aircraft’s avionics software is being modified to customize the information shown to the pilot on the cockpit displays.
- Since the team often takes VIPs and Media up for rides, the classified information found on the cockpit displays is also being removed.
- Navigation equipment on the aircraft is being modified since the team spends much of their time flying to and from civilian airports.
Now that the first aircraft with these modifications is ready to fly, the test pilots from VX-23 are again stepping up to prove that it all works as intended. Lt. Cawley told WEAR, “We look forward to finishing testing this summer and returning the Blues Angels modified aircraft, Salty Dog 01, to the Blues for them to complete their transition to Super Hornets for the 2021 season.” Other Super Hornets are currently in the modification pipeline at NAS Jacksonville.
The Blue Angels are currently slated to perform in the Legacy Hornets for the last time at their home base of NAS Pensacola on October 16-17th. This is an earlier season finale than usual, which will give the team extra time for their winter training period. Their first show in Super Hornets is scheduled for NAS Jacksonville on April 10-11, 2021.
The team is also expected to receive their new “Fat Albert” C-130 Hercules some time this year after their previous aircraft was retired from service. The team themselves leaked images of her new paint scheme earlier this year and the pilots have recently been training to fly the new “J” model. The aircraft is reportedly still in the UK receiving modifications.
Although the final season of the Legacy Hornets has been cut short by the COVID pandemic, the team has not been sitting idly by. In addition to practicing for a hopeful return of some airshows later in the year, they joined forces with the US Air Force Thunderbirds for a series of flyovers around the country under the name Operation America Strong.