1946, F6F-5: In April 1946, as described by Robert K. Wilcox in First Blue, Butch Voris was tasked with establishing an official U.S. Navy flight exhibition team. Among the aircraft he considered were the Grumman F7F Tigercat, the Vought F4U Corsair, and the Grumman F6F Hellcat. He thought that the Corsair was the “nicest looking” but was concerned that the possibility of it stalling and snap-rolling at the top of a loop precluded close formation flying. “The Tigercat, he felt, was too big and not agile enough.” Moreover, he and many of the candidates for the team were very familiar with the Hellcat so he requested four, modified by the removal of armament, etc. to reduce weight and painted in a new distinctive color scheme. (For more information on Blue Angel markings, click here.) Three were flown in close formation in the air shows with the fourth available as a spare. The first public display was on 15 June 1946 at Craig Field near Jacksonville, Florida.
In this photo reportedly taken at Grumman of a Blue Angel passing overhead during their final show in the F6Fs in August 1946, the bottom of the wing appears to be marked with US on one wing and NAVY on the other. (I’ve crudely enhanced the markings which are barely visible on the photo I have.)
1946-1949, F8F-1: The team was an immediate success and very shortly reequipped with the Navy’s frontline propeller driven fighter, the Grumman F8F Bearcat. Although powered by the same basic engine as the Hellcat, it was slightly smaller and lighter, with excellent climb and roll performance. Four were modified by Grumman to remove the guns, gun sights, tail hooks, etc. and delivered to the Blues in August 1946. These early production F8Fs did not have the turnover structure behind the pilot’s headrest. They flew their first show in the Bearcats only a week after ferrying them back to Jacksonville.
Later F8Fs had the turnover structure added, a polished aluminum or painted leading edge on the wing and tail surfaces, and “Blue Angels” in script on the cowling.
1949-1950, F9F-2: The Blue Angels entered the jet age with the Grumman F9F-2 Panther. They initially thought that removing the Panther’s tip tanks would provide better visibility for close formation flying as well as reduce weight. However, the Panther’s tanks were necessary for cross country flights and were not intended to be readily removable (they weren’t even jettisonable) so the concept was short-lived.
One of the show innovations implemented with the introduction of the jet was the use of a solo airplane to make passes to fill the time required for the faster jets to get turned around and back in front of the crowd for the formation's next maneuver..
When the Korean War broke out, the team’s pilots and airplanes were transferred to a fleet squadron which was converting to Panthers from Bearcats. They deployed aboard Princeton (CV-37) as the nucleus of VF-191.
1952-1954, F9F-5: The team was reformed with -5s after a hiatus for the Korean War. It had a more powerful engine than the -2. Its short stint with the team was indicative of the rapid succession of new jet fighter types in the early 1950s.
1952, F7U-1: Two Vought Cutlasses were assigned to the team in January 1952. The F7U-1 was a bit too overweight to be used as an operational airplane and was being redesigned with more powerful engines as the F7U-3. In accordance with its procurement practice, however, the Navy had begun low rate production before development was complete and had few more F7U-1s than they had test and evaluation requirements for. At the behest of Vought and with the approval of senior Navy management, two were assigned to the Blue Angels to generate publicity for the Navy's hottest new fighter. It was expected that they would be flown as opposing solos rather than be part of the formation of Panthers.
As it turned out, the new F9F-5s assigned to the Blues were effectively grounded for the first few months of the air show season. The Cutlasses were therefore the only airplanes available for flight demonstrations during that period and the necessary workup time after that. However, they weren’t really ready for prime time, suffering from hydraulic failures, engine fires, at least one landing gear malfunction, and excessive maintenance. In July the Blues were ready to resume shows with the Panthers so the Cutlasses were parked at NAS Memphis, the site of their last show and conveniently, a Navy training facility for aircraft mechanics.
F9F-6, 1953: The team picked up six Cougars, the swept-wing successor to the Panther, from Grumman in August 1953. The ferry flight home was marred to say the least because the team leader, Ray Hawkins, experienced a runaway pitch trim at 42,000 feet. He had to make a near-sonic ejection when the airplane bunted into an outside loop. He wasn’t badly hurt but the Cougar control system had to be modified so the Blues returned the F9F-6s to Grumman without ever performing a show in them and flew the F9F-5 for another year.
1955-1957, F9F-8: The successor to the F9F-6 was received in December 1954. Their first F9F-8s did not have the splitter plate on the fuselage in front of the engine intake. It’s not clear why the Cougar’s time with the team was not only relatively short, it was replaced at mid-season, which required the team to transition to a new airplane while still flying air shows in the old one.
1957-1958, F11F-1 (early): Before committing to the F11F Tiger, the team also considered both the North American FJ-3 and the Douglas A4D. However, neither were afterburner equipped, which added an extra element of showmanship and maneuver capability to the flight demonstration. Moreover, F11Fs from the first production lot, characterized by a shorter nose with a refueling probe at its tip, were readily available since design improvements were in work.
1959-1968, F11F-1 (late): As it turned out, the marginally improved F11Fs in the second production lot were no more in demand in the fleet than those in the first due to the superior performance of the Vought F8U Crusader, so the early short-nose F11Fs were replaced with the later long-nose version.
1969-1973, F-4J: In the late 1960s, two situations resulted in the F11F finally being replaced. First, the Navy was running out of F11Fs. Second, the Navy had bought an improved version of its front line fighter, the McDonnell F-4 Phantom, but its new radar and improved engine were not available in time to be installed in the first production F-4Js. As a result, the Navy had brand-new Phantoms with lead ballast in the nose and the prior version of the J79 engine. Twelve or so of these were made available to the Blues to replace the F11F. To improve handling qualities in the very close formation maneuvers, the control system was modified, including a change to allow afterburner to be selected at a lower engine rpm. A smoke system was also added.
Although the Phantom was a terrific air show airplane, the Blues experienced a series of unfortunate events with them. Nine of the lead-nosed Js were lost in accidents between September 1969 and March 1973, requiring replacement with a few “real” Js with the J79-GE-10 engine. Another was destroyed in early July 1973 at an air show. However, the 1973 season ended in tragedy on 26 July when a midair between the team leader and a wing man occurred during an arrival display at NAS Lakehurst NJ. The boss, the pilot of the other F-4, and a Chief Petty Office in the backseat of one of the F-4s were killed. The other Chief Petty Officer riding along was able to eject successfully.
1974-1986, A-4F: After the Lakehurst disaster with the F-4Js, the benefit versus the cost of the team was questioned at the highest level of the Navy. The debate was resolved in favor of continuing but not with the fuel-guzzling and accident-prone Phantoms. The Grumman F-14 Tomcat was deemed too expensive. The Vought A-7 Corsair II was or was not favored, depending on who is telling the story, but in any event was in short supply as the more capable strike replacement for the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk. Not only was the A-4 available, the latest variant, known as the Super Fox, had a very good thrust-to-weight ratio with its uprated J52 engine in addition to an excellent roll rate. After control system modifications, bolting up the aerodynamically actuated slats, removing unneeded equipment, and adding a smoke system and a braking parachute, it proved to be an excellent air show airplane in addition to being relatively simple and easy to maintain. Its diminutive size, relatively low approach speed, and excellent handling qualities allowed the Blues to land with all six aircraft in formation.
1987-present, F-18: By mid-1985, considering that the A-7, the A-4’s replacement in the fleet, had itself been replaced, the Blues were overdue for a change of airplane. However, options included an A-4 service life extension program as well as the new trainer, the McDonnell T-45A based on the British Aerospace Hawk. However, the Navy once again had a set of airplanes, Lot IV production McDonnell F-18A Hornets that did not have the landing gear modifications necessary for carrier operations. The F-18 required control system modifications in addition to the usual weight reduction removals and unique Blue Angel show requirement additions like a smoke system and inverted fuel system capability. The conversion to a more complicated airplane was accomplished between seasons in part by retaining the same pilots, some of whom would normally be replaced, in order that there would be no pilots who would be learning both the Blues maneuvers and the characteristics of a modified F-18. The reinstatement of an airplane with afterburners added to the crowd appeal and maneuver options.
In the last year or so, the Blues have begun to replace their As with the newer C model, newer being relative since the last C built by McDonnell was delivered in 1999. The Bs were to be replaced by Ds. Hopefully, the changeover to "new" aircraft will allow the Blues to continue to be a powerful recruitment tool and good-will ambassadors for the U.S. Navy for many years to come.