It’s roughly 18 inches from the tips of your fingers to the bend in your elbow — the same distance between the cockpit canopy of one Blue Angel to the wingtip of another in the team’s iconic diamond formation. Just a short, tiny, arm’s-length distance as they fly up to 700 miles per hour, barely under the sound barrier. These precision pilots were just a few of the death-defying daredevils flying at the Breitling Huntington Beach Air Show on September 29 through October 1.
Go ahead and click play on Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone,” because it will feel appropriate as we fly through some of the weekend’s highlights. Center stage took place over the beach, basically across from the Hilton Waterfront Beach Resort. A safety zone was cleared over the water and a massive fire boat sprayed jets of water high into the sky, almost obscuring the flotilla of recreational boats offshore with one helluva view.
The US Army’s Special Operations Command Parachute Demonstration Team, the Black Daggers, kicked Saturday off, landing on the orange square on the beach just in front of the Breitling chalet. The Black Daggers gave us a glimpse at how specially-trained soldiers are dropped behind enemy lines with remarkable stealth. Falling something like two miles towards the ground at around 120 mph, the all-volunteer team was somehow invisible until just a few hundred feet from landing. Two guys parachuted with an American flag stretched out between them (not too shabby). Thanks to the particular design of the parachute, The Black Daggers can even jump with an extra 100 pounds of equipment.
Our friends from the north swooped in with a breathtaking aerobatic demonstration from the Canadian Snowbirds. The Canadian Forces’ nine CT-114 Tutors, capable of a whopping 2,700 pounds of thrust, sped over the crowds at upwards of 370 mph, managing an incredibly tight squeeze of 5 feet, 9 inches in between them during formations. During their stomach-churning, head-on passes, they’re a mere 33 feet apart. The Snowbirds were the first guys to incorporate music into their shows and often allow the crowd to hear the pilots talking while performing.
The Willa Dean, a C-47 Dakota, swept across the blue skies courtesy of the Lyon Air Museum. The Willa Dean was with the Air Force until 1945, when she went on to fly for the French, ultimately ending her service with the Israelis before heading to the museum. It’s one of the most complete and original C-47s still able to fly.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department demonstrated their helicopter and rescue methods, as did the Huntington Beach Police Department Air Support Unit. Franky Zapata showed off his daring on his Flyboard Air Hoverboard, flying up vertically (and hovering into every daredevil’s heart).
A hair-raising F-16 Fighting Falcon showed off its absurd maneuverability, though it’s lovingly referred to as a “Viper” by pilots thanks to its look (and, for a far nerdier reason, the Battlestar Galactica Colonial Viper Starfighter). The F-35A “Lightning” blew hair back; capable of 9 g’s, this plane utilizes a helmet-mounted display, the most advanced system like it. The engine offers up 43,000 pounds of thrust, and it gave the air show crowd a high-octane glimpse into the future of air combat.
Paul “Sticky” Strickland, a retired USAF colonel, showed off some truly nail-biting aerobatics in his L-39 jet, at times flying so low to the ocean it seemed a tall wave could’ve splashed the fuselage. Michael Wiskus in the Lucas Oil Pitts S1-11Lb airplane clearly has some sort of devil’s bargain with gravity, because he flipped and flopped and somersaulted through the air like it was nothing.
David Martin piloted the Breitling plane, a CAP 232 in the famed aviation watch brand’s iconic yellow. The Texas native and aerobatic champion has been performing stunts since he was 19, and the experience shows. He flew sideways, barrel-rolled, dove, climbed, flew inverted (upside), then flipped out with grace to buzz the ground before climbing vertically. He’s named many of his maneuvers after Breitling watches, like the Tourbillon, whose flips and turns and spins he feels mirrors the intricacy of watch innards. Tourbillon (the watch) is capable of compensating for the variations in time that can happen in varying gravity. That kind of specialized engineering is why Breitling is, and always has been, the watch of pilots.
And, of course, the headliners, the Blue Angels. Made up of pilots from the Navy and Marines, the squad was originally formed back in 1946. Today, they fly McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornets and do more than 70 shows throughout the U.S. each year. Four planes in formation and two solos speed in and out of view, only to zip back over you before you even know it. You see them before you hear and feel their intense rumble. We could try to describe their maneuvers, but it wouldn’t do them justice. Just YouTube it. The planes are combat-ready, but they remove the guns and replace them with a smoke-oil tank during performances.
Despite the incredible amount of gravitational forces exerted on them, the Blue Angels pilots do not wear G-suits, which are designed to help keep the pilot from passing out. Instead, they use muscles carved by a bald eagle’s beak. Or more likely, at the gym. Regardless, these pilots have to be in peak physical condition.
Current commander Ryan Bernacchi was in charge of the Angels at Saturday’s stunning and flawless performance. He’s a graduate of the US Navy Fighter Weapons School, aka TOPGUN (hopefully you have “Danger Zone” playing on repeat), and later taught there. He’s highly decorated and even served as Federal Executive Fellow at MIT.
It was fortunate Breitling had their watches on display at their chalet because it’s an easy bet a lot of new pilots were inspired in the crowd — and they’re going to need the right tools.