Florida Keys News
Sunday, March 24, 2013
Blue Angels rendezvous with Key West
Air show continues today

The Blue Angels, the Navy's aerobatic stunt pilots, delivered their patented display of airborne bravado and precision Saturday at Boca Chica Field, waxing triumphant in tight formations and play dogfight passes.

Thousands turned out for this weekend's free Naval Air Station Key West Southernmost Air Spectacular, set to continue today from 10 a.m. through the Angels' marquee performance at 2:30 p.m.

Saturday's sunburnt afternoon at the military base, where vendors hawked model airplanes along with funnel cakes and corn dogs, and the line for draft beer was as long as the one for cold lemonade, was the first Blue Angels show of the year and likely the last.

While the flight demonstration outfit's website promises a schedule of 65 shows at 32 locations across the nation this year, the Angels have been grounded due to the federal sequester -- the automatic budget cuts that followed when Congress failed to pass a defense appropriations bill by March 1.

"I couldn't be more happy to be here today," said NAS Key West commander Capt. Pat Lefere, who until a few weeks ago couldn't say if the air show would go on as planned due to the sequester.

"We were on pins and needles the last four or five months," he said.

This weekend's spectacle, which resembles a county fair with its kids' rides and local booths, cost about $450,000 to put on, Lefere said.

"It's the Navy giving back to the community," he added. "We can't complete our mission here in Key West unless we have the support of the community."

The sequester did cut into some of the air show program, scrapping some military aircraft models from appearing.

But local stunt pilots and other private outfits filled out the mostly clear blue skies for hours before the Blue Angels took flight.

"All the blood is rushing to his head!" a male announcer said as stunt pilot Gary Ward took a roaring swan dive about 1 p.m. "That's 1,300 pounds of airplane, about 160 pounds of pilot and 15 gallons worth of gas!"

The six blue and gold F/A-18 Hornets were the main attraction, given the Angels' 65-year reign as a recruiting and retention tool for the Navy and the Marines, but the crowd heartily cheered on the opening acts.

Crowds celebrated the white plumes of jet smoke, which at one point painted a giant heart on the bright blue sky, as engines blustered and loudspeakers blared.

When the Angels took the stage, though, most people dropped what they were doing.

Key West and the Blue Angels have a history that dates back to the 1950s, when the team was based here during the winter. Today, they call Pensacola home base.

The Angels' last performance on the island was in 2010, locals on Saturday remembered well.

"We're so fortunate to have two so close together," said Mayor Craig Cates, catching some shade beneath the Navy's VIP tent. "Some cities have had none."

A veteran racer of cars and boats, he said he doesn't get nervous watching the stunt pilots spin, soar and plummet in the sky.

"I like the speed," Cates said.

Jane Perry, a New England transplant who moved to Key West about nine months ago, randomly chose the island as a vacation spot in 2010 and only went to the air show on a cab driver's suggestion.

This year, Perry rode her bicycle from White Street to the Navy field, saying it was worth the pedaling.

"I like the glider planes," she said from beneath a straw hat with a generous brim. "Up in one of those, I'd get sick."

Selected locals were invited to take rides on the Marines' C-130 cargo plane and the more adventure-prone jets.

"One of my favorite parts was hanging upside down," said Jonathan Gueverra, president of Florida Keys Community College, who rode in an F-18 fighter jet earlier in the week. "It was a very different view of the world."

Gueverra said he declined to take any over-the-counter remedies for motion sickness, despite many offers from NAS Key West spokeswoman Trice Denny, and reported no illness from the rollicking ride.

"I trusted the work of these military fellows," Gueverra said.

NAS Key West's only home squadron -- Composite Fighter Squadron 111, or the Sun Downers -- helped kick things off with several high-speed passes in their F-5N Tiger II fighter jets led by Cmdr. Joe "Monty" McMonigle.

The Sun Downers are an adversarial squadron at Boca Chica Field, playing the "bad guys" to the student pilots who fly the much more advanced -- and costly -- F/A-18 Super Hornets.

But Saturday was all about kicking back and letting loose, McMonigle said, back on the ground after his high-speed flight.

"It's days like today that remind us how much we absolutely love what we do," McMonigle said, while shaking hands with passers-by. "It's extra special for us working here and looking out and seeing all those people who live here."

gfilosa@keysnews.com

Staff writer Adam Linhardt contributed to this report.

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