Maggie A's Meanderings




July 17, 2011

Red, White and Blues:
The Pensacola Beach Airshow Featuring the Blue Angels
July 2011

Blue Angels at Pensacola Beach
Blue Angel flying over Pensacola Beach (July 10, 2004)
Flown by Lead solo pilot, Marine Corps Maj. Len Anderson
By U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Saul McSween [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Pensacola is proud to be the home for the Navy's flight demonstration team, the Blue Angels.* We have a street named after them, Blue Angel Parkway. There's a golf tournament. The Blue Angels decorate our interstate and water tower. I don't think any Blue Angel pilot has ever had to buy his own drink at the beach ---- not if he mentioned he's a Blue Angel pilot. (At least I know people offer. I don't know if the pilots accept.) Pensacola loves our Blue Angels. And we do think of them as ours. We soar in our spirits with them, and when they lose a pilot, we mourn in our hearts with them. They are ours.

What Pensacola gets in return are guaranteed airshows twice a year. (Guaranteed as in if a Saturday show gets rained out, the Blue Angels will fly on Sunday (weather permitting) even though they weren't scheduled to. That doesn't happen at other airshows.) There's an airshow in the summer and in the autumn. Though they're both airshows, they couldn't be more different and each is enjoyable in its own way. The airshow in the fall is the Blue Angel's Homecoming show. It's held on the base, NAS Pensacola, and has a large static display of vintage and modern aircraft. The summer airshow is the climax of "Red, White and Blues Week" which starts with the Fourth of July and culminates with the Blue Angels flying over our breathtakingly beautiful beach. So you get to experience two of the best things about Pensacola simultaneously.

Even though it's technically two shows a year, it's not just two Blue Angels performances. For the summer show, the Blue Angels fly four days in a row and do their act for three of those days. The airshow in the autumn is normally two days, Friday and Saturday. (Last year it was expanded to three days as Thursday was the Veteran's Day holiday.) Plus, anytime the Blue Angels are in town, you can go to the base to see them in their weekly practices and even meet the pilots afterward at the National Naval Aviation Museum on base.

* About the Blue Angels website: It was redone sometime in the recent past. Now it crashes my Firefox browser whenever I try to open it. (It freezes my entire browser, everything I've got open. I have to shut the browser down and restart it and that happened each time I tried going to the site.) So you may have problems. The Blue Angels site still works in Internet Explorer, but I abhor using IE. When I finally gave up on Firefox and went to IE, that's when I discovered the site had been changed. It's a lot more slick, but contains a lot less actual information. I would have found it more useful if they had combined the slick with the information. 

Blue Angels in Diamond Formation
Blue Angels in Diamond formation (Miramar airshow, October 16, 2004)
Photo by Jon Sullivan [Public Domain]

This year's airshow had five civilian acts before the Blue Angels finale (which is always opened by Fat Albert).

  • Grumman Widgeon G-44 flown by Julian MacQueen
  • Prometheus flown by Skip Stewart
  • Team RV
  • MX2 flown by Gary Ward
  • Boeing (Stearman) A75N1 flown by Roy Kinsey
  • Fat Albert, a C-130 Hercules
  • The Blue Angels F/A-18 Hornets
As with any airshow it's not just about what's happening in the skies. Up near the parking lot, there are an assortment of booths though not a large assortment. You can walk through all the tables in a few minutes. Not surprisingly many of them are military related. There's a sprinkling of people selling non-military items. Food and cold drinks. And there are some local businesses that give away small freebies. (Last year Publix gave out mini first-aid kits. Mine proved so useful through the summer that I had to restock it.)

Rather than going on the beach, some people choose to set up for the day in this area. The bathrooms and showers are close by as are the restaurants. For the wheelchair bound or people whose mobility is otherwise limited, it's a good spot to spend the day.

Firehoses are hooked up to a hydrant and turned into a fountain. The kids love running through it while the adults stand in it getting drenched. Last year, when the Gulf was fouled by the BP-Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the improvised fountain and the showers were the way to cool off. With the music blasting from the loud speakers, there's a "party at the beach" atmosphere.

I was at the Friday, July 8, "dress rehearsal" airshow. It was an almost perfect day for it weather-wise. The morning was overcast which kept it from getting too hot and saved some people from getting worse sunburns than they were already getting. And, happily, by the time the Blue Angels flew, the skies had cleared enough for them to do their high altitude show. It was still a bit cloudy at the higher altitude so it was a little difficult to see the planes at the highest point. That was the one infinitesimal point that kept it from being absolutely perfect weather.

The Gulf was calm. The water was perfect, warm enough to stay in, but still cool enough to be refreshing, and, even though the purple flag was up warning of jellyfish, there weren't any where I was at. After last year's oil spill, it was nice to be able to smell salt water instead of "gas station" and to get in the water again.

Although the Friday show is called a dress rehearsal, it's supposed to be the full performance with narration the same as Saturday's official show. However, this year it wasn't. Besides the Blue Angels who are always accompanied by Fat Albert, only two of the five other acts performed. (I don't count flying your plane across the sky a couple of times to be an actual performance. If that's a performance then those planes towing advertising banners would qualify as better acts.) The two acts that did perform were Team RV and Gary Ward's MX2. The fact that we only got a partial show was very disappointing. But at least the Blue Angels didn't let us down.

Blue Angel at Pensacola Beach
Blue Angel #6 piloted by Lt. Craig Olsonk making a steep climb over Pensacola Beach (July 10, 2004)
By U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Ryan Courtade [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

What You Really Need to Know to Go

I'm not talking about water and sunscreen. If you can't figure that out by yourself, then go away --- you shouldn't be reading my writings. I like polysyllabic words, and you might not be able to fathom them.

The one thing I would suggest you consider bringing is some kind of hearing protection. It can get loud, and it's often too loud especially for young children whose hearing is better than any adults. (Aging........what are you going to do about it? Die?)

This information applies only to driving in. The only thing I know about watching the airshow from a boat is there sure are a lot of them. If you're driving an RV or have a camper or trailer, you're not going to be able to park at the Casino Beach parking lot. In fact, you're not going to be able to park anywhere public except in the Gulf Islands National Seashore Fort Pickens area at the very west end of the island.

(For general information about Pensacola Beach go to

Wednesday: Breakfast with the Blues
This is described as "Circle and Arrival maneuvers" rather than a regular airshow performance. If you want to see the Blue Angels in the sky for a long while this is a good event as they're scheduled to fly over the beach from 8 to 10 in the morning. Traffic is going to be only slightly heavier than the usual summer morning weekday traffic. Parking's not an issue.

The Blue Angels perform at 2 PM each day. How early you have to get there varies by day:

Thursday: Easy-peasy
If all you want to do is see the Blue Angels fly in one of the most beautiful locations around, go this day. The Blue Angels are the only act flying. You can bop on out there at noon and easily find a parking space at Casino Beach or across the street at the Portofino Boardwalk (usually referred to simply as the Boardwalk). Spend a couple of hours lounging/playing on the sand and in the water. There will be no vendors, no booths giving away freebies. No music. No narration. But you'll see the Blue Angels fly a full performance. If you wait about half an hour after the show, you can waltz on out, no fuss, no muss.

Friday: A pleasant day at the beach
Friday is the "dress rehearsal."
This is the day I choose to go. All the vendors and booths are there. There's music. There's narration. Every act is supposed to perform. It's got everything that Saturday's show has except with fewer people. I try to get there before 8:30. (This year I was there at 7:48 which was earlier than I planned --- couldn't sleep.) At that hour you can easily get a front row, show-center spot on the beach.

However, if you have arrived early enough to fairly get a prime spot, you will have to guard your spot from rude latecomers who think they're "special" and who will try to sit in front of you even though you've been there for hours. Your best bet is stuff and lots of it. Bring it, spread it around, lay out a blanket or old sheet down to the tideline. But even that may not be enough if someone isn't there to watch it. I've come back to find that someone has moved my stuff. (
If you're one of those people who thinks you're special and "first come, first served" doesn't apply to you ---- don't be surprised if the people you try imposing that viewpoint upon don't agree with your assessment of your "specialness.")

According to the newspaper, this year the Casino Beach parking lot was full by 8:30. In the past I've seen cars continue to park at Casino Beach until about 9:30 or so. (When it does fill up, you will have to park across the street at the Boardwalk or go down the road and take the free trolley to get to the show area.) But if you do get there later, you're not going to get a front row, show-center spot; those spots are generally taken by 8:30 or 9:00 in the morning. 

After the show, unless you're one of those people who enjoys sitting in the parking lot, wait a while before you leave. It's hot. You haven't been able to get in the water during the show. Go in. Cool off. Get out. Let your suits dry. Then about an hour or 90 minutes after the show ends, get your stuff together and head out to the car. Leaving the parking lot and making it back out to Pensacola Beach Boulevard/Via de Luna Drive heading for the bridge might take a few minutes, but it won't be too long.

Saturday: How badly do you want this?
From the Pensacola News Journal, July 11, 2011, by Rebecca Ross:
"The toll booths were backed up at 7:15 a.m.," he said. "We closed the Casino Beach parking lot at 8:09 a.m., which is the earliest anyone can remember closing it."

By 10 a.m., cars crawled across the Pensacola Bay Bridge, then inched, bumper-to-bumper, through Gulf Breeze.

Even as the Blue Angel jets took to the skies at 2 p.m., vehicles attempting to get to the show were backed up along the Bob Sikes Bridge...................

Once there, parking spots were nearly impossible to find. Law enforcement was forced to close Fort Pickens Road once the parking lots and roadside spaces were full.

Pensacola to Pensacola Beach Map
Route from Pensacola to Pensacola Beach
(Image courtesy of Google Earth)

On Saturday, serious people are out on the beach by 6:30 in the morning to get the good spots.

If you aren't there before the Casino Beach parking lot closes, be prepared to have a difficult time finding a parking spot. The deputies try to be understanding of this. But some people push it too far in where they choose to park and their cars end up getting towed. Also, unless you've got an off-road vehicle, be cautious of parking in the sand as cars do get stuck. Neither one of those is how you want your day to end.

When you do find a parking space, you're either going to have to walk or take the free trolley. Keep in mind the trolley is dealing with the same traffic you drove in. If you managed to park within a reasonable distance of Casino Beach, it might be faster to walk than try to take the trolley.

Pensacola Beach, Casino Beach Map
Close-up of Casino Beach
(Image courtesy of Google Earth)

When the airshow ends, forget about trying to get off the island or even out of the parking lot unless you (and everyone with you) has got the patience of a saint on tranquilizers and you're driving a vehicle that won't overheat. If you don't have both of those, then -------- and I hate sounding like one of those peppy motivational people -------- turn a negative into a positive. Or, as the saying goes, make the best of a bad situation...........

My recommendation for when the airshow is over starts with what I said for Friday:
It's hot. You haven't been able to get in the water during the show. Go in. Cool off. Get out. Let your suits dry. After you've dried off, go for some dinner to a place within walking distance. (There are many restaurants by Casino Beach, from very casual to beach fancy. Cross Pensacola Beach Boulevard/Via de Luna Drive to get to a bunch of them.) After dinner it should be just about time for the free concert ("Sounds of Summer") to start on the Boardwalk at 6 PM. Listen to some music. Then around seven o'clock or, better yet, eight o'clock when the concert's over, head back to the car, and you shouldn't have any problems leaving.

Last year I headed out to spend Saturday evening at the beach at 5 o'clock --- two hours after the show ended ---- traffic leaving the beach was still backed up all the way north to across the Pensacola Bay Bridge. This year wasn't nearly so bad. I didn't see bumper to bumper traffic until I got to the beach, but there were still a lot of people trying to get out of the Casino Beach parking lot. (Getting into the parking lot was no problem.)

The only time I've ever been to the Saturday airshow was one year when a large group of us rented two beach front hotel rooms: one XX, one XY. We brought our own linens because there were so many of us, at night you had to step over the bodies. We spent Friday and Saturday nights out there. It was a great weekend. It's also the only way I'd ever go to the Saturday airshow again.

Blue Angels at Pensacola Beach
The Blue Angels over Pensacola Beach, July 2011
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Rachel McMarr [Public Domain]

The Attractions

Blue Angels Pensacola Beach Air Show

The ground show section of the airshow.
People will set up to spend the day in this area.

Aviation Swimmer Rescue Candidates
As usual, there were at least three tents selling Blue Angels Souvenirs.
As I was going by them I couldn't help but notice the men who were working this particular Blue Angels Souvenirs tent.
When I saw that their t-shirts had "Aviation Rescue Swimmer Candidate"* on the back, I said to them that that
"explained the unusually high level of physical fitness" in this tent.
This is the first time I've ever asked people to pose for me, but I had to take a photo and they were kind enough to oblige me.
They even offered to take their shirts off, but decided they'd better not. (Later when they were on break, they did take their shirts off, and I happened to be walking by. So I do have several photos of this group shirtless ------- very nice ----- but I'm not putting them on here.
I enjoy looking. I'm not going to pretend otherwise. If I ever stop looking, someone toss dirt on my body because I died and didn't notice.)
At the very end of the day, I did return the favor. They had gotten their inventory messed up by switching a shirt out when they weren't supposed to.
They were desperately trying to sell the shirt they weren't supposed to have so I bought one over-priced t-shirt I didn't need.
The Petty Officer who sold it to me said I was a lifesaver. Ironic considering the profession he chose. They're going to be the real lifesavers.

* I kept getting security warnings from my browsers when I tried to open the Aviation Rescue Swimmer School website.
Turns out I had to download a DoD Root 
Certificate. For instructions, go to this CNIC page.

Aviation Rescue Swimmer Candidate
Aviation Rescue Swimmer Candidates working one of the Blue Angels Souvenirs tents

Marines 501st "The Warlords" at Airshow
This table was staffed by Marines from 501st Fighter Attack Training Squadron (VMFAT-501) from Eglin AFB.
I suppose these men are pilots as they're wearing flight suits. But I didn't actually speak with them or even go near them.
(Mostly I just stand back and watch. Now that I have this digital camera, I stand back, watch and photograph.)
Their logo shows a jet punching through a Carling beer label. The beer part might explain the following:
Their motto "Vini-Vici" is supposed to mean  "I came, I conquered."
The official site explaining the history of the patch very carefully says, 'interpreted to read, "I came, I conquered."'
(It also doesn't mention anything about beer labels, though it does say the patch was updated to have a F-35B Lightning II, their current aircraft.)
The word "interpreted" is critical in that sentence, because........

"Vini-Vici" actually means "Of wine, I conquered."
With a motto like that, I'd like to see a few of them down on Pensacola Beach one Saturday night,
but since they're based out of Eglin AFB, they probably do their wine conquering at Fort Walton Beach.
(But let me say, in the unlikely possibility that any personnel of the "The Warlords" happens to read this,
a wine bar just opened up this summer on the Boardwalk across the street.)

"I came, I conquered" is "Veni-Vici" with an "e" not an "i." What a difference one letter can make. In this case, a pretty funny difference.

Recruitment at Beach Airshow
Naturally the military was doing recruitment. That's what the Blue Angels are recruit.
They're very open about it. Their own website describes their mission as "recruiting and retention efforts."
Works very well too. I know a little boy who used to want to be a Blue Angel pilot.
But now he wants to be a Navy SEAL.
I think the SEALs killing bin Laden was a good recruiting tool. Maybe the Navy should have SEALs do recruiting when they're short-timers.

Recruitment at Airshow
One of the more interesting attractions was this pull-up bar. It certainly got a lot of attention.

Tables at Airshow
Not every table was military. There were local businesses advertising by giving away small freebies.
WYCT Cat Country also sponsors "Bands on the Beach" the free Tuesday concerts here at Casino Beach.

Tables at Airshow
Of course, refreshments were for sale.

Skin Screenings
An unusual, but appropriate, service is the free skin screening.
They aren't done on the beach, but in the public safety building in the background where you'll be examined by a dermatologist.

Sound System
The music was blasting all day.
The airshow narration is also broadcast. But I can tell you from experience you can't hear it down by the water.
They really should put speakers on the beach throughout the area instead of keeping them up here.
I noticed last year during the oil spill that the news crews would just run their cords from their vans out onto the sand, even down to the water's edge.

Flags at Water's Edge
At the water's edge, there were already this many set-ups front row, show-center by 8 in the morning.
One group even brought a flagpole: United States of America, Blue Angels and football (Auburn Tigers) flown in the proper precedence.

Bathers enjoying the Gulf
In the morning the Gulf was in a mood we call "The Lake of Mexico." Lots of bathers were enjoying the calm.

The Lifeguards

Lifeguards en masse
I could have put these lifeguard photos in the "Attractions" section, but that would have been redundant.
According to the Santa Rosa Island Authority (who runs Pensacola Beach) there has never been a drowning on a beach watched by the lifeguards.
I've seen them at work. They can spot someone in trouble when people nearby haven't noticed.
They'll pull kids out when even their parents in the water with them haven't seen their child is struggling in a rip current.
Just don't bring your children anywhere near the towers if there are two of them and they're conversing; their language tends to be profanity laced.
You don't realize how truly young most of the lifeguards are until you hear them talking. Young or not, when on duty, they take their 
responsibilities seriously.

Lifeguards on duty

If this had been standing in front of me during the show, I would not have been looking at the Blue Angels.
When I snapped this shot, a lady who was nearby came up and whispered for me to e-mail her a copy. She knew exactly what I'd just photographed.

Lifeguard on Station
He took a station further down the beach.
During the show the lifeguards stand on the tideline to ensure people stay out of the water.
The tale is there's a $34,000 fine for getting in the water during the show, but I expect that's a tall tale.
However, there is a boxed off area of the Gulf that the Blue Angels fly over, and if a swimmer gets into it, the show shuts down.
I don't think that's likely to happen. The lifeguards would get to him first if anyone tried.
Probably the only people out there who can outswim the lifeguards are the Aviation Rescue Swimmer Candidates or a Navy SEAL.

The Airshow

Coast Guard
The Coast Guard cutter Cypress arriving.
The cutter marks show center for the Blue Angels and
makes sure the boats there to view the airshow stay out of the boxed off danger zone.
Speaking of danger zone.....sometimes when I'm standing there on the beach I contemplate the chaos of half-naked bodies strewn all over the flaming white sand that would result if something went wrong as has been known to happen at airshows from time to time, though never at this airshow.
Going to an airshow is like watching a car race. There are inherent hazards you accept.

The Cypress (WLB-210) is a 225 feet cutter of the Juniper Class of Seagoing Buoy Tenders. (Thank you Wikipedia 'cause like I'd know that.)
All of the Juniper Class cutters are named for plants. Oak, Hickory, Sequoia.....I get. All strong names.
But my favorite's got to be the Hollyhock. I love hollyhocks; they're beautiful flowers.
Apparently the Coast Guard's not afraid to show its softer, floral side. Though I do wonder how the crew feels about it when they mention the name.

Caveat not Emptor (since you're not buying anything)
I'm sure you've figured out by now I'm not a photographer. All I have is a $75 "point and shoot" digital camera I was given as a Christmas present. I wanted it just to take home photos and it does that pretty well. It was not designed for high speed photography. And on this day it wasn't even a "point and shoot" camera, more like a "guess and pray." The day was so bright, the viewscreen was useless. (I miss viewfinders instead of viewscreens.) I quite literally did not see a single plane when I took any of these shots. I tried improvising an old-fashioned photographer's hood with my shirt and towel, but that didn't work. All I could do was hold the camera up in the general direction, press the button and hope there was a plane in the frame. (Because of that I couldn't use the zoom at all as I had to include as much of the sky as possible.) I was very pleasantly surprised when I got home and downloaded the photos to discover that there actually was a plane in almost all of the shots.

So don't expect anything professional quality in these shots. That's why I included those excellent public domain photos of the Blue Angels.

Team RV

Team RV
Team RV is billed as the world's largest airshow team.
There were 12 of them. Most airshow acts are solo. It's nice to have an act with so much happening in the sky at once.
They fly home-built planes designed by Richard Vangrunsven, hence the RV.

Team RV

Team RV

Team RV

Team RV
A beautiful Anchor formation using all 12 planes
(I was really pleased when I looked at the photos on the PC and realized that I had gotten this formation.)

MX2 Flown by Gary Ward

Gary Ward's MX2




The Flight of the Blue Angels

I'm sure there are plenty of people out there who can look at these photos and immediately say, "That's a Diamond Half Squirrel Cage." At which point, I'm going to think they've gone half-squirrely. Seriously, who comes up with the names for these aerobatics?? I'm not an airshow aficionado. If I know what it's called, then I stated it. If you're one of those people who do know and want me to include the information, please feel free to email me with it, and I'll update the page if I can verify you know what you're talking about. (After all, some people have a strange sense of humor. I wouldn't put it past certain people to try to tell me that maneuver is a "Sixty-Nine with Chili Dog.")

I have included some photos of the airshow from the official Blue Angels facebook page substituting my original with their much better version. I tried resizing them to match, but the quality really deteriorated so I'll leave them original size. 

Fat Albert

The flight of the Blue Angels always begins with "Fat Albert" the Marine C-130 Hercules support aircraft.
Yes, Fat Albert is nicknamed for the character from the Bill Cosby cartoon.

Fat Albert
Low Pass

Blue Angels
The Blue Angels are still flying the F/A-18A Hornet though I believe the fleet's switched to the Super Hornet.
Although they're Navy planes, they're flown by both Navy and Marine Corps pilots.
(I grew up an Air Force brat: Go Thunderbirds!!---Red, white and blue. Pensacola's my hometown now, and I love our Blue Angels.
However, I still have a Thunderbirds sweatshirt. I've even been known to wear it at the Blue Angels Homecoming airshow.)
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Rachel McMarr [Public Domain]

Blue Angels

Blue Angels

Blue Angels
Delta Loop Break Cross maneuver at Thursday's practice show
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Andrew Johnson [Public Domain]

Now this is a view of Pensacola Beach I'm never going to see. Because even if I were in the cockpit, I'd be too busy barfing my guts out to look.
I recently read a list of half a dozen different kinds of motion sickness*, and I'd experienced every one of them from spectacle sickness to widescreen movie sickness with the exception of camel sickness. And that's because my butt's never been on a camel. If my butt ever is, I'm sure my guts would be motion sick.

I also found out that one of the major places that studies motion sickness is right here in Pensacola, Naval Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory
Made sense since we've got trainee pilots here and motion sickness is a problem for them. Unfortunately, it's closing this September.
I would have been a perfect test subject for them. They have not developed a motion sickness drug that works on me --- short of knocking me 
*Mary Roach, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010), p. 124.

Blue Angels

Blue Angels
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Rachel McMarr [Public Domain]

Blue Angels

Echelon formation

Blue Angels

Blue Angels
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Rachel McMarr [Public Domain]

Blue Angels
Delta formation

Blue Angels
Delta formation closer-up

Blue Angels
Diamond formation
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Rachel McMarr [Public Domain]

Blue Angels
I don't know the name of this maneuver, but I think of it as "Pretty Fan."
(There's another maneuver that I personally call "Flower Blossom Opening." But I believe it's actually called "Bomb Burst.")

Blue Angels

Blue Angels
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Rachel McMarr [Public Domain]

Blue Angels

Blue Angels

Blue Angels
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Rachel McMarr [Public Domain]

At day's end the only Blue Angel still in the sky was this Blue Angel kite.

Blue Angel Kite)

Blue Angels Insignia
For more Naval based entertainment, read "The Sounds of Pensacola: Summer Salute IV." If you'd like to read more about the Pensacola music scene, "The Sounds of Pensacola: Sunsets at Plaza de Luna."

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