Their sound is earth-shattering and unmistakable. It’s the roar of the jets: of the U.S. Navy Blue Angels.
Six more F-18 jets arrive before 6 p.m. Wednesday, here for this weekend’s air show at the National Cherry Festival. But the first jet arrived Tuesday – and took a trip over Traverse City with a civilian on Wednesday morning.
This year, the honor goes to Deputy Matt McKinley with Grand Traverse County Sheriff’s Office. He knew he had been nominated several months ago. “I got a phone call one day when I was at work from a woman who said ‘Congratulations, you’re going to fly in a Blue Angel.’ And here I am,” McKinley says.
The Blue Angels prepare Matt McKinley for his flight. Wayne Moody with the NCF Air Show Committee sits in the background.
McKinley was nominated to take the civilian flight because of his work and service to the community. But before they can takeoff, McKinley goes through an official briefing and some preflight training.
“It’s surreal. I told my dad, I said ‘I’ve never thought about asking for a ride in a Blue Angel, because it would be like asking to go to the moon.’ Who would ever think to be able to do something like this? It’s exciting, humbling,” he says.
Lt. Griffin Stangel is piloting Blue Angels #7 – his Call Sign is “PushPop”. “It’s always exciting. You can tell there’s a little bit of anxiety there (with the civilians). They’re not sure what to expect. We knock out that first maneuver on take-off, it’s kind of like a football game taking that first hit, getting tackled or something like that. The rest of the flight you’re just enjoying it really,” he says.
McKinley says, “I think everybody’s a little bit nervous. I mean who wouldn’t be? Everybody but my wife. She’s got a good life insurance policy on me.” What’s he looking forward to most of all? “Just actually walking over and sitting down in the plane. I think that’s when it’s going to hit me that it’s real. I still feel like I’m dreaming right now.”
It’s his first year with the Blue Angels but he’s been a Navy pilot for 10 years, and already has flown dozens of civilian flights this year. “Probably close to 100 so far this season. It’s a lot of fun. You know I’m here to show the capabilities of the F-18s and kind of demonstrate what the pilots do during the flight demonstration,” he says. “I think the respect for the team comes from the 76 years of the team’s history. And really the teams that have come before us have inspired so many. That’s what we’re out here to do.”
Lt. Stangel adds, “This is our first time bringing the Super Hornets up to Traverse City. We’ve been flying the Legacy Hornets since 1987. A few years ago we transitioned to the Super Hornets. With the Super Hornet you get a little bit bigger airframe, a little bit stronger motor. These are the same jets that have been on carriers, and can go back to the carrier if needed.” And he says he loves flying these F-18’s. “We can really showcase what the Super Hornet can do, pull some G’s.”
After more than 30 minutes in the air – Matt McKinley circles the airport and touches down. He’s greeted by his wife and family who are glad to have him back on solid ground.
“I feel sweaty and like I just went to the gym for a while. I’m in awe of what they’re able to do and make it look so effortless. Because the work behind it is crazy. The plane is so aggressive, the turns are so intense. The G-forces are like nothing I’ve ever experienced before,” he says. “It felt like we were just putting along, then the after burners kick in and all of the sudden we’re going 600 knots. Straight up in the air. I mean, you just can’t put words to it.
“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, I can’t imagine. If anybody ever has the opportunity – do it,” he says. When asked if he was ready to go again? “I would go right now. I would go right now. I told him I didn’t want to get out of the plane.”
The Blue Angels highlight the weekend air show on Saturday and Sunday – with a practice run on Friday afternoon.