From The Golf Journal Archives - Catching A Flyer

Nov 12, 2010

The Blue Angels, the U.S. Navy’s elite flight demonstration team, wish their awesome airborne success could carry over a bit more into their favorite grounded pastime.

By Rich Skyzinski

(Note: This article originally appeared in the January/February 2002 issue of Golf Journal.)

WHAT IS WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE? On a glorious November morning, as a chill dissipates and the clear blue sky envelops the lush landscape of Lost Key Golf Club, on the outskirts of Pensacola, Fla., a group of pilots belonging to the Blue Angels flight demonstration team leaves the practice range. As the ace pilots make their way to the first tee, though, it appears there are some golf clubs in their possession that are in very unmilitary-like condition. It has been some time since a damp towel has been wiped across many of these grooves. If there were such a thing in golf as a surprise inspection, a number of these club-faces would not pass.

An amateur psychologist might scratch his head and wonder how this is possible. How is it that the exacting military precision that is pre-eminent in so much of these pilots’ daily existence has not found its way into their golf bags? If there’s one golfer who should comprehend the importance of properly cleaned and maintained equipment, it ought to be one who flies one $28 million aircraft inches apart from another at 400 mph.

Actually, it’s quite logical. The Blue Angels all fully recognize the basis upon which their awe-inspiring reputation has been built, and it’s the mastery with which they maneuver their F/A-18 fighter jets in drill-team precision. “We know what we’re good at,” explains Lt Marcello Caceres, the team’s events coordinator for the 2001 season, which ended in November with more than 200,000 spectators packed along the Pensacola beaches. “And it’s flying, not playing golf.”

As New Cumberland, Pa., native Capt Andy Hall (USMC), who pilots the massive C-130 maintenance and support aircraft, nicknamed Fat Albert, adds good-naturedly, “If we flew the way we played golf, we’d all be dead a long time ago.”

The Blue Angels take their golf competition seriously, but a demanding work schedule puts a crimp in the plans any of them might have to show dramatic improvement in their playing skills. They often practice six days a week – flying, that is – and headline an air show in a different city each weekend but Easter from March to mid-November.

“It’s hard to get much better,” laments Lt. Dan (Dino) Martin, who played golf while in high school in New Jersey, “when you might play only once every few months.”

Caceres, a native of Napa, Calif., whose low double-digit handicap index is the best among the current group of players, adds, "We know we're never going to go out there and shoot a par round. But there is no such thing as a perfect flight, either.

“That’s one of the joys of flying these jets and of playing golf. You look at what you’ve done and try to take something out of it where you can improve. You try to get a little better the next time, and a little better the time after that.”

OF COURSE, the abilities required to become a top-flight golfer aren't the same ones necessary to fly with the Blue Angels, whose fighter jets can pass over a 440-yard hole in less than two seconds, but there are some personality traits which are useful to both. One is a self-confidence, an assurance that almost borders on arrogance, that he (or she) is up to a task that appears to be ridiculously difficult to the rest of us mere mortals. Do you think a touring pro stands over a 2-iron shot to an island green and asks, “I wonder if I can pull this off?” It’s the same with the Blue Angels. Before their first show of the season, they’ve completed a winter training in the California desert in which they’ve conducted 120 training flights or more. Every flight is filmed and critiqued, and there are exhaustive debriefings that follow each practice and show session, even when the entire program comes off as scripted.

“It's through repetition in the flying that we’re able to build that confidence,” says Hall. “I don’t want to say it’s second nature, or I don’t want to compare it to driving a car, but when you get in that airplane you know what you can do with it You feel at home in the cockpit because you’ve done it so much.”

Concentration would appear to be the characteristic the Blue Angels could most easily take to the golf course, but a round with these fellows gives lie to that notion. Perhaps it is because their training is so intense, so dependent upon the smallest detail and their every move, that golf seems to serve as a complete escape from the need to concentrate during every second of a flight. Bad things can happen when your cockpit canopy is 15 inches away from the wingtips of two other fighters and you're not paying attention.

“The job demands so much concentration,” says Hall. “We’re all great compartmentalizers and we all can concentrate on the task at hand. However, on the golf course, most of us don’t have the skill to put that concentration to good use. "

MOST PEOPLE WILL NEVER SEE the cockpit of an F/A-18, one of the most advanced flying machines ever built, so there are undoubtedly misconceptions about the rigors a pilot endures in, say, a typical 45-minute flight, which, by the way, consumes about $2,400 in fuel. For starters, it’s nothing like the coach-class seats in Row 43 on the commercial plane you took to grandmother’s for the holidays. It's more like one on a regional jet, where the seats are about 14 inches wide. If you can picture yourself in a middle seat, with sumo wrestlers on either side and the person in front of you reclined all the way back so that the seatback is in your lap, you have a better idea of a pilot’s maneuverability. The pilot doesn’t get strapped into the plane; the plane gets strapped onto the pilot.

“Flying an airplane requires different skills than swinging a golf club,” says Hall, “but muscle memory is something we practice and repeat for proficiency. I can see how some of it could be likened to hand-eye coordination. The more experience you get, the more you develop a seat-of-your-pants kind of feel. You can feel in your body what the airplane is doing, whether you’re accelerating, decelerating, climbing or descending, and it registers in your brain and your hands. And whether one’s on the throttle or one’s on the control stick, you automatically do what it takes to maneuver that airplane into exact position. It’s probably our version of hand-eye coordination."

The Blue Angels perform in front of 15 million to 17 million spectators annually, and the golfers in the unit have dazzled some of the right people.

“None of us plays as often as we’d like,” says Caceres, “but one of the neat things is that we get to meet different people from all over the nation and play their home courses with them.” In the last two years, these offers have been proffered by members of Augusta (Ga.) National Golf Club, home of the Masters, and Cypress Point.

That’s pretty elite company. Both on the ground and in the air.

The Blue Angels: Lt. Marcello Caceres, Maj. David Michael, Captain Andy Hall, Lt. Todd Abrahamson (back row), Lt. Dan (Dino) Martin and Lt. Jerome Deren (front). (USGA Museum)

The Navy’s show pilots can maneuver powerful jets through precision moves with ease (above) – but keeping a golf ball in the fairway is another matter (below). (USGA Museum)

(USGA Museum)