Blue Angels ready for beach air show if COVID-19 permits, public practices up in the air
Five to seven times a week, the U.S. Navy Blue Angels are speeding across the Pensacola skies, practicing their demonstration maneuvers as if a portion of the team's 2020 schedule will be salvaged.
As of now, that schedule is slated to kick off with the beloved Pensacola Beach Air Show on July 11. Both the Blues and the Santa Rosa Island Authority (SRIA), which hosts the air show and has the power to nix it, say that the plan 41 days out is to still conduct the show, as well as the July 10 dress rehearsal.
Both events are, of course, vulnerable to being canceled as the coronavirus pandemic looms large, but Blue Angels Executive Officer Cmdr. Todd Royles said his pilots and his team continue to prepare as if the show will go on.
"We are still moving forward to be prepared to perform at that show if authorized to do so," Royles said Friday. "That's why we'll continue to practice here over the field at NAS Pensacola as well as out over the Gulf of Mexico and the outlying field. Just to kind of mix it up."
SRIA Board Chair Brigette Brooks said she will let updates from the CDC and the state and federal government dictate whether or not the air show weekend is canceled or altered, but did admit that many of the ancillary events will at best have to be modified.
"We may not see the Wives Luncheon and the reception and all of those things that social distancing may not accommodate," Brooks said. "What I can say is the show will go on as of today. All of the other activities would obviously have to be modified. A reception with 500 people obviously is not even a consideration."
While the Blues are still practicing at full speed and under an official capacity, a return to open-public practice this year remains totally up in the air. Currently on the Blue Angels website, Aug 5. is the first scheduled open practice date, but even that target is highly questionable, according to the Blues and representatives with NAS Pensacola and the Naval Aviation Museum.
Since the Dec. 6 shooting that left three servicemen dead, only members of the public with Department of Defense (DoD) IDs have been permitted onto the base. The museum orchestrates official public practices by rolling out bleachers in designated viewing areas on the base and advertising the dates, but both NAS Pensacola Spokesperson Jason Bortz and Marketing Director of the National Naval Aviation Museum Foundation Malerie Cates said there is no definitive date for the base or the museum to reopen to all, meaning there's currently no pathway to open up the practices.
Bortz said that prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, NAS Pensacola submitted a waiver to the United States Fleet Forces Command that requested an exemption of the base closure during the practices.
He said the waiver's status is still unknown.
"Right now we can't do anything about access, that's up to Fleet Forces," Bortz said. "Even if the museum were to open up right now, they would only be open to those with a DoD card. So it's kind of going to be the same as it was before this whole COVID thing started."
Fat Albert's 2020 return questionable, Super Hornet transition still on schedule
A fleet of 18 F/A Blue Angel Super Hornets is still on track to arrive for the 2021 air show season, according to Royles.
"We are fortunate that we have several ex-Blue Angel pilots that are still local to Pensacola and that are considered our Super Hornet transition team," Royles said. "They are handling the lions share of the coordination and the administrative burden of getting the jets here and making sure everything's coordinated through Boeing."
In mid-March, just before the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., Blue Angels social media sites teased the return of their newest member, a C-130J Super Hercules aircraft, which will replace the retired C-130T Fat Albert.
The aircraft was purchased from the British Royal Air Force in June 2019 and has received a subtle new paint scheme. The new "Bert" was always planned to make its debut on the back half of the 2020 air show season.
Royles said Friday that even if the last handful of shows in October aren't canceled, the new Bert has a long way to go before it is deemed performance-ready.
As of now, it is still in the United Kingdom receiving its final fine-tuning.
"We are putting the final travel arrangements into place to have that aircraft delivered to the United States here in the next two months," Royles said. "Once it gets back, there are still several inspections that have to take place on that aircraft."
Pilots still need a demonstration syllabus for the C-130, something they have been without now for well over a year and a half.
"Once we get the airplane in our possession, we'll go through it with a fine-tooth comb and make sure it's up to our standards to put into the usage that the Blue Angels need it for," Royles said. "No. 1, the logistics platform to get us to and from each show site every weekend, and then to demonstrate the capabilities of that aircraft to the public via the Fat Albert demonstration."
Jake Newby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-435-8538.
This story originally published topnj.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.