With a puff of exhaust smoke, Cmdr. Frank “Walleye" Weisser, signaled his arrival just south of the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center for a flyby in front of the few assembled Air and Space staff who were there to witness the end of the last flight of this U.S. Navy Blue Angels’ F/A-18C Hornet. The pilot passed by, banked right, circled back around for another pass, then lowered the aircraft’s gear and landed on runway 1R at Dulles International Airport.
Standing out by the taxiway that connects the Udvar-Hazy Center to the airport, I had to hold back my emotions as I photographed this blue and gold aircraft approaching. While focused on framing it with the museum in the background, I felt goosebumps as it taxied by. Switching cameras, I captured the airplane turning left and coming to a full stop in front of the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar, as the two powerful engines wound down for the last time. With that, Commander Weisser’s mission was complete, delivering this retired U.S. Navy aircraft, Bureau Number (Navy serial number) 153439, from the U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, to become part of our national collection.
This goosebump moment was brought on by the realization that my photography career had, in some way, just come full circle. It was back in 1973, as a young Photographer’s Mate, only months out of boot camp and having just completed courses at the Navy Photographic Center in Pensacola, Florida, that I had the good fortune of being selected and assigned as the photographer for the U.S. Navy Blue Angels Flight Demonstration Team, home based at Naval Air Station Pensacola. Talk about being in the right place at the right time.
In my wildest dreams, I couldn’t have landed a more exciting opportunity to begin my career as a professional photographer. I also didn’t know back then how this amazing experience would impact my personal and professional life over the 47 years that have passed since first wearing a uniform with the Blue Angels crest.
There is pride that comes with being part of the Blue Angels team —the training, professionalism, and camaraderie that is displayed by the pilots during precision airshow demonstrations are traits that can found throughout the entire squadron’s personnel. I got to work with the best of the best in Naval Aviation. At the end of the show season, a few pilots and crew depart, the newbies arrive, and a new team is fleet trained and tested —the pilots, mechanics, electricians, supply and administration staff, parachute riggers, and yes, a photographer. They are all tasked with a single focused purpose in support of the unit’s official mission "to showcase the pride and professionalism of the United States Navy and Marine Corps by inspiring a culture of excellence and service to country through flight demonstrations and community outreach."
It was an amazing four years serving with the Blues, from my first backseat ride in an F-4 Phantom, photographing the team on a flyby over the training aircraft carrier the USS Lexington at our home base; to the months of winter training with a new team in El Centro, California, traveling across the United States each season; to documenting the airshow performances and maintenance support.
I was fortunate to become a plank owner (someone formally attached to squadron at the time they’re commissioned) of the team that was formally commissioned in December 1973 as the U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron. At that time, we also began the transition from the larger twin-engine Phantom fighter jets to the single-engine delta-winged A-4 J Skyhawk.
With this transition, my immediate challenge for the upcoming 1974 season was to capture photographs of our new aircraft in action for the brochures and media materials. During winter training at Naval Air Station El Centro, I would make the daily run out to the desert training area to photograph the new team in action, from a mound of dirt known as center point. On one occasion I would get to fly in the back seat of the #7 jet, a two-seat A-4 trainer, piloted by the team’s narrator, to shoot aerials of the new team in their different formations.
Over the years as we traveled around the country, I would get to shoot air-to-air missions of the team flying over local historic landmarks. We did Niagara Falls, Mount Rushmore, the Naval Academy, and some of the monuments in Washington, DC. One year I came up with the idea of shooting out the back of our C-130 transport, affectionally known as “Fat Albert,” to capture a photo of the formation head-on. While doing an airshow in California, we planned such a mission for the Golden Gate Bridge. Tethered by a safety harness, I stood at the back of the transport’s ramp as the back door opened. Our skipper, the pilot of Blue Angel #1, carefully guided the Delta formation just below me as we passed over the Oakland Bay Bridge, then downtown San Francisco on our approach. With fog rolling in over the bay, we were able to get in just one pass before the orange towers disappeared in a white cloud, but fortunately, it created a unique perspective that is one of my favorite photographs of the team.
As a member of the traveling squadron, every member of the crew is cross-trained to do a variety of jobs in support of the airshow mission. I was certified to drive school buses to transport crew, trucks to move equipment, and tow tractors as I became skilled in towing and parking blue jets lined up by the precision eye of our line chief.
As the photographer, I was one of the only spare crew members on a road trip, so on occasion, I was called on to fill in as a crew member of the team’s startup and launch sequence. At one airshow, a solo pilot’s plane had an engine go down from intaking debris while taxiing in after arrival maneuvers. The clock began on an amazing 24-hour, all-hands effort, to get that airplane back in the air for the next day’s airshow. And with this being a show in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada, we were about as far away from home as we could be, yet still had a chance to pull it off.
Because a spare engine is one of the few things we didn’t have room for on the transport, everyone pitched in to pull all the road gear off “Fat Albert” so its Marine crew could fly to our base in Pensacola, Florida, pick up a replacement engine, and return. With “Fat Albert” airborne, our air frames and mechanic crew began taking off the tail of the sidelined jet. Without a compatible engine stand anywhere on base, they removed every bolt, hose, and cable they could until the new engine and an extra stand returned. I had hung around to photograph the ordeal, did a chow run, and was even put to work passing wrenches and rags to my roommates as they pulled this all-night feat.
When the transport returned early morning, the bad engine was pulled and the replacement engine was connected. After a successful high-power ground test, the pilot took off for a test flight, returning just in time for the scheduled Blue Angels’ performance to begin. High fives were given all around that afternoon, after the show, as it was pretty special to be a part of the incredible effort it took to put a six-plane show in the air that day.
Looking back, there is no doubt that taking off, strapped into the back seat of a high-performance jet aircraft for a photo mission, was a career highlight. But those 24 hours in Canada are what makes being part of this team so special: the lifelong friendships that began over those four years with my teammates; the belief that as a team, there is nothing that can’t be accomplished; as well as the motivation to strive for perfection. It was an experience that will forever impact me personally and professionally throughout my life.
The arrival of the Blue Angles F/A-18C Hornet is made even more special to me now that I’m a photographer at the National Air and Space Museum. I was with the Blue Angels when the museum on the National Mall was dedicated in 1976 and when the footage was shot of the Blues for the 1976 IMAX movie To Fly.
And so, to be once again photographing a glistening blue and gold jet with a Blue Angel crest on the fuselage, hearing the roar of the engines and the smell of the JP5 exhaust as it taxied past, feeling the goosebumps run up my arms, it is with great pride that I could be there; documenting and witnessing aircraft number 163439’s retirement as it is given new life in joining part of our historical national collection.