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Where Blue Angels get their wings

The Blue Angels, the Navy's air show stars, train their recruits each winter in El Centro, a heaven-sent boost for the hard-luck town.

March 31, 2011|By Mike Anton, Los Angeles Times
  • Spectators cover their ears as the Blue Angels roar overhead. in El Centro, Calif., where the Navy show-fliers spend three months every winter practicing.
Spectators cover their ears as the Blue Angels roar overhead. in El Centro,… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from El Centro, Calif. -- Minutes to show time and Ray Wainscott listens to cockpit chatter from a scanner dangling from his neck. He stands next to an irrigation ditch and trains his camera's long lens on the gleaming blue fighter jets on the tarmac.

"When they come over, they'll be so close the shock literally goes right through your chest," said Wainscott, 66, a retiree from the Seattle area who has spent six winters here in the low desert of Imperial County. "I came here for the weather. But this is the frosting on the cake."

He is among about three dozen people standing a Frisbee toss from the end of Runway 3-0 at the Naval Air Facility El Centro, an isolated base surrounded by some of California's richest farmland and poorest people.

There are retirees who've come for a bargain rivaling an early bird special. Longtime locals who associate sonic thunder with winter. Groupies who've seen the Blue Angels perform so many times they swear they can tell when the U.S. Navy's flight demonstration squadron is having an off day.

Some 8 million people watched the Florida-based Blue Angels perform their aerial ballet at air shows last year. They're an American cultural icon born of the jet age — and still an effective public relations and military recruitment tool.

But each winter for the last 44 years, the Blue Angels have retreated to El Centro and the training ground where new team members integrate with second-year veterans to perfect their performance. For 10 weeks, they put on show after show over the Imperial Valley.

Video: Blue Angels' winter home

"The noise — it scares the bejesus out of you!" said Ken Bentley, 68, a retired California Highway Patrol officer. He and his wife, Lou, are veterans of this scene and come prepared with binoculars and lawn chairs.

"It beats fighting the crowds at a commercial air show. Besides, you could never get this close to the action."

At least twice a day, six days a week from January to March, six F/A-18 Hornets shear the sky with barrel-roll breaks, diamond dirty loops, sneak passes, half-Cuban eights and the fleur-de-lis.

At a distance, they resemble a synchronized flock of delicate shore birds. Overhead, the blitzkrieg of high-decibel growls and screeches is an ice pick through the eardrum.

SSSHHHRRRUUUFFF....

For El Centro, population 42,598, the annual encampment of the Blue Angels and its 130-member support staff is an economic boost and an enduring tradition.

Team members judge the annual Holtville Athletic Club's World-Famous Rib Cook-Off and host a golf tournament, both of which raise money for youth sports. They speak at schools, mingle with Boy Scout troops and are feted at dinners. Signed lithographs from teams throughout the years grace the walls of countless local businesses.

For more than 20 years, Betty Tucker, 65, has been bringing lunch to the pilots on base every other week and serving them barbecue at annual parties at her home. She's especially fond of the maintenance crew, mostly young enlisted men who've sought her advice on girls, money or feeling exhausted by long hours of work.

"They're just a bunch of lovable guys. And I'm an old mother hen who has to feed them," said Tucker, a retired state unemployment caseworker. "I am not a groupie."

The Blue Angels fly away from El Centro in early March after giving their first formal show of the season. The Chamber of Commerce raises money for the free show with a black-tie gala — dinner and dancing in a hangar at the air base; a table for eight is $640.

"They're a real asset to the community," said Mary Baran, who has served pasta to a generation of Blue Angels at her Italian restaurant, Grasso's. "They bring good vibes down here."

El Centro and the Imperial Valley could sure use some. Unemployment is pushing 30%, and one in every 130 housing units received a foreclosure notice in January alone.

When El Centro topped a meaningless, unscientific, online "Worst Place to Live" survey last year, it was nevertheless an exclamation point on a sad reality.

"When you're from here, it's easy to develop an inferiority complex," said Brad Jennings, editor of the Imperial Valley Press. "But you know what we do have? The Blue Angels."

When the Blues flew into town this year on Jan. 3, Mayor Efrain Silva was among the two dozen civic leaders on hand to meet them — an annual ritual of gratitude.

"It was a neat feeling to see the mayor waiting to see you when you land," said Cmdr. David Koss, a first-year Blue Angel whose chiseled looks and polished manner make him a walking advertisement for the Navy. "I have to say, that has never happened to me before. A mayor? Waiting for me? It was humbling."

Drive 20 minutes northwest of El Centro and the valley's fertile fields give way to a sun-baked wasteland pockmarked by decades of bombing and artillery practice.

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