There are those who say operating fast moving machinery is not a sport.
Dont tell that to those who race hydroplanes, drive snowmobiles, or guide competition cars around an oval.
And dont tell that to Jim Horsley, retired Navy Lt. Cmdr and Blue Angel
Pilot during the 1980 and 1981 seasons. Flying an attack aircraft like an F/A-18 Hornet through a series of acrobatic maneuvers at 350 knots, pulling up to 6 Gs of force, requires a great deal of athletic ability, timing, and strength.
In fact, the similarities between an athletic event and flying precision formations are numerous.
There arent many who make the big leagues. Blue Angel team members and professional athletes are both a very small fraternity. In fact, to this point there have been 213 pilots chosen to fly with the Blue Angels. The selection process is like weeding out the minor leaguers. A pre-screening of all the applicants brings the list of potential pilots down to 60, and that number is eventually trimmed to just several.
The Blue Angels even have a preseason. While the Blue Angel season runs from March to Thanksgiving, the pilots spend six weeks in training camp practicing their maneuvers, even doing twice-a-days, flying twice a day for six weeks, with one day off every two weeks.
And there is the need for focus, the ability to block out distractions and concentrate on the task at hand that marks great athletes. Flying six planes in such proximity to one another that they are 36 inches apart, or about the length of an average sleeve, requires practice, and, according to Horsley, nerves of steel and ice in your veins.
Its actually a matter of acclimating. Baseball players talk about seeing the seams on the ball. Every sense is so honed things seem to slow down. You learn not to react, but proactively move the right amount at the right speed.
And, as in sports, all positions are important. In football, the quarterback, even though he has the spotlight, is dependent upon his line. Formation flying is no different.
The flight leader, says Horsley, hasnt got a clue whats going on behind him. He can feel airflow in mismatched flights, but thats it. All the positions are important. The Blue Angels are the Navy Flight Demonstration Team. The solo flights are really the filler. The Diamond formation is four planes, the Delta formation is all six.
Our plan was to have a formation maneuver in front of the crowd every 45 seconds. There was a flow of movement that was choreographed a game plan. It was show business.
Flying in formation requires teamwork, and trust. You have trust the other five guys, says Horsley, You have to trust that theyre going to do what theyve practiced and even if they dont, you have to be ready.
Its like playing in the defensive backfield. You have to trust the other guys are going to do their job. You know that someone is going to make a mistake at some time, and you have to watch for him and pitch in.
Theres a maneuver where the flight leader would be upside down, with me upside down behind him. Two others would pass us flying right side up. To go by each other, flying at 350 knots 300 feet off the ground, requires the ultimate in trust and teamwork.
To say that Blue Angel pilots need to be in peak physical shape is an understatement. There is weight training and aerobics, running and sleep. The cockpit, in some ways, was the weight room, says Horsley.
Youd pull up to 6 Gs with no G-suit. Your blood would hold in your upper torso. You would start to lose it and your eyes would turn to window shades and things would turn gray, and then you back off the stick and everything would come back to normal.
And you just keep going. You get out of the airplane and youre soaking wet. And then youre ready to do it again in an hour.
And, of course, there are the occasional mistakes. In sports, those mistakes are errors, or penalties, or fouls, and may result in an unearned run, loss of yardage, or a free throw. Mistakes made while flying in formation have a far more grave consequence.
Horsley knows that first hand.
We were in the desert, practicing maneuvers. One maneuver called for the team to start into a climb in one formation and roll into another. I was to slide underneath the formation.
The first two times we did it were a bit sloppy. I needed to add more power. So we did it a third time. This time I added too much power and hit the two guys in front of me.
There was a blur of blue and yellow paint. I heard the sickening sound of ripping metal. I came out of the formation tumbling to the ground, shaking like a cement mixer. I saw the desert floor spinning up at me. I was in the process of pulling the ejection handle to blow myself out of the airplane when I was able to get it up and raced to the airport. Just before landing four feet fell off the right wing.
Two hours later, we did the same maneuver. I was fine with it. It was almost like the collision never happened. Your hearts pounding, but you suck it up and go on.
Aviators are not ordinarily introspective guys. You go full throttle and you go hard and you dont think about it.
Jim Horsley began to think about it in 1989, eight years after leaving the Blue Angels.
There was such a disconnect in my life. The public perceived me as a hero, because I had been a Blue Angel, and a combat pilot, but I didnt feel like a hero. There was a lack of congruity between the values I espoused and the way I actually lived. It all came to a head in the lack of a relationship with my wife and kids.
I was around a couple of guys whose faith was relevant to how they lived their daily lives and made a difference in the level of their performance. I wanted that.
Jesus put legs on my life. There is a huge distance between what it takes to fly an airplane and what it takes to live effectively.
What I now know about living life effectively by faith in Christ would not have made me a lesser pilot, and would have made me a better example, with a blend of personal values and character in the context of extraordinary capability and accomplishment.
The Biblical principle is to die to yourself. When we give ourselves over to the Creator, we release the right to ourselves. Its the essence of what holds a marriage together and its the essence of sports and aviation. You give yourself to the team. You give yourself to the other.
Now, Im not just a former Blue Angel. Im an ambassador for Christ.
Aviation, sports and life. Its a matter of trust.