As the four sleek blue and yellow F/A-18s execute the slow, graceful barrel roll in front of the gaping crowd, two other Blue Angels' jets circle lazily in the sky three miles away awaiting their cue to race toward center stage.
"Can you take a mark?" Lt. Matt Seamon asks.
"I can take a mark," replies Lt. John Foley.
"Stand by. . . . Mark it!" Seamon says.
Foley, 31, of Laguna Niguel, recounts what happens next in order to execute one of 25 aerial stunts that the six-plane Blue Angel team will perform at the El Toro Air Show Saturday and Sunday:
Upon hearing "Mark it!" Foley resets the stopwatch attached to the cockpit glare shield and pushes the stick forward. The jet fighter dives urgently. At this point, he has only 20 seconds to reach the point to begin a precision maneuver that will culminate in the two jets shrieking within a plane-length of each other in front of the air show crowd below. A half-second can mean the difference between a perfect and imperfect maneuver.
By now, the two solo F/A-18s are closing on each other at about 1,000 m.p.h. In less than a half minute, they will cover the six miles between them.
Foley strains through the canopy to find a small dot in the sky that is Seamon's F/A-18 rushing straight at him. He has only a few seconds to spot the other jet--or abort the maneuver entirely--before closely passing the other jet.
"His contract is to be on that flight line at, say, 100 feet altitude," Foley explained in an interview. "My contract is to miss him."
The maneuver, called a "solo opposing knife-edge pass," always brings gasps from the crowd as the two planes screech past. To the people below, it looks as if the two aircraft fly through each other.
The Blue Angels bring their awe-inspiring aerobatics to the sky over El Toro this weekend. The precision fliers also will make a special appearance Friday for handicapped children and other special guests.
Foley, a former advanced flight instructor at the El Toro Marine base, is in his first season flying with the Blue Angels. He and the other pilots--flight leader Cmdr. Greg Wooldridge, Lt. Cmdr. Lee Grawn, Lt. Pat Rainey, Lt. Cmdr. Dave Inman and Seamon--will appear at 68 air shows at 39 places in the United States. Since the Blue Angels first flew in 1946, the pilots and their familiar blue jets with yellow stripes, lettering and numbers have been seen by 230 million people.
The team members, based in Pensacola, Fla., fly the F/A-18 Hornet, a multipurpose war plane built by McDonnell Douglas and Northrop. It is used by the Navy and the Marine Corps and has won the praise of military leaders for its role in the Persian Gulf War.
The air show features the graceful, aerobatic "diamond" formations, which bring four jets within 36 inches of each other as they fly in the tight formations. The No. 5 and 6 planes, the solos (piloted by Seamon and Foley), demonstrate the high performance capabilities of Navy pilots and their aircraft at speeds of up to 600 m.p.h. At one point in the show, all six jets will maneuver together in the familiar delta formation.
The loops, dives, rolls, climbs and crosses are all performed with split-second precision. There is little room for error. As the four-plane "diamond" formation finishes one maneuver, the solo planes appear.
"We like it to go bang, bang, bang, one maneuver after the other," Foley said.
The show circuit begins in March and runs through mid-November. It is punishing, both physically and mentally. The Blue Angel pilots--who fly for two years with the team and then return to regular Navy and Marine duties--are on the road for 300 days a year, moving from one hotel room to another, basically living out of a suitcase.
"I think it is the greatest job in the world," Foley said, at first avoiding a question about whether he was disappointed because he was unable to go to the Persian Gulf and do what he was trained to do--fly off aircraft carriers.
Sure, he said, when the conflict started in the Middle East, "I wanted to be over there so bad I could taste it." He said many of his friends were in the Gulf, and he has spent many years training to do what the Navy pilots were doing in Kuwait and Iraq. "I really wish I could have been there, but it wasn't an option. From that standpoint I was disappointed, but if there was ever a consolation, being a Blue Angel was it."
He added: "You could pay me anything . . . . If you were to write me an open ticket and say 'you can have any job in the world and we'll give you any amount of money you want,' I would be doing what I am doing now. It is just that good."
The team will go to Sacramento after the show Sunday. The pilots' support crew will accompany them aboard a C-130, affectionately called "Fat Albert." The Blue Angels and company travel more than 140,000 miles during a season.
Sixteen officers and 100 enlisted persons are assigned to the Blue Angels. All are volunteers and are not paid any extra for the duty.