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Us air force aerobatic team: US Navy, Marine Corps and Army teams

21 Apr
2012

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The US Navy, Marine Corps and Army have all recognised aviation as a valuable public relations and recruiting tool and have

operated a large number of aerobatic display teams over the years. The most famous, and oldest, US Navy team is the ‘Blue Angels’, which will be featured separately in Part 4.

However, on occasions when the ‘Blue Angels’ have been unable to attend air shows, it has always been useful to have another team in reserve, and, in fact, the US Navy has been operating aerobatic teams since the late 1920s.

The formative years

Through its early years, naval aviation underwent a tremendous evolution in aircraft, technology and requirements. World War I played a major role in this evolution, but it was not until the late 1920s and early 1930s that naval land – planes dominated over amphibians and seaplanes. The pioneers of those early years were to set a precedent for all naval aviators to follow.

Photographed in 1928, the US Navy’s ‘High Hatters’ team was led by Lt L. E. Gehres and was equipped with F2B-1s, the same aircraft as flown by the ‘Three Sea Hawks’.

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 After they had mastered aerobatic flight, these fledglings of display flying ventured still further into the unknown by bringing their aircraft ever closer together to fly in increasingly complex formations, while executing their precision manoeuvres. Indeed, some of these early teams went so far as to fly their manoeuvres while their aircraft were actually tied together.

Recognised as the first of the precision aerobatic flight demonstration teams, the ‘Three Sea Hawks’ was the US Navy’s first display team, and pioneered naval formation flying. The Three Sea Hawks’ also set the standard for several other US Navy teams that existed during these early years. Each of these teams represented a unique aspect of flying and all were major influences on the development of the ‘Blue Angels’. Established early in 1928, the Three Sea Hawks’ was formed within squadron VB-2B at NAS North Island, San Diego, California. Formerly known as VF-6B and VF-3, this was the original ‘Felix the Cat’ squadron that served aboard USS Langley. Lt D. W. Tomlinson, at that time commanding officer of VB-2B, saw a need for improved public relations. Along with Lt(jg) W. V. Davis and Lt A. P. Storrs III, Tommy’ Tomlinson formed the team and led it during its first public display at Mines Field (now Los Angeles International Airport), during the National Air Races of 8-16 September 1928. Flying Boeing F2B-2s, the ‘Three Sea Hawks’ performed before more than 100,000 spectators, gaining the team long-lasting fame. The ‘Three Sea Hawks’ not only had the distinction of being the LIS Navy’s first aerobatic team, but was also the first to fly their manoeuvres with aircraft tied together. However, the Boeing F2B-1 in its standard configuration was unable to fly inverted without its engine cutting out. Lt Tomlinson eliminated this problem by having the aircrafts’ carburettors modified, enabling them to fly inverted indefinitely (or at least until they started losing oil pressure). The Three Sea Hawks’ flew at shows and exhibitions primarily along the US west coast until they were disbanded late in 1929.

The ‘High Hatters’ was another team that existed briefly during the late 1920s and early 1930s. Formed within VF-1B onboard USS Saratoga, one of the team’s pilots during the 1929 Cleveland Air Races was Charles E. Lindbergh, at that time a colonel. At the conclusion of each display, the ‘High Flatters’ flew a nine-aircraft formation while demonstrating their version of the ‘rope stunt’. As such, they it was the second team to perform this risky demonstration.

In 1930 another naval flight exhibition team was formed, on the east coast. This was the Three Flying Fish’, formed within the Tactical Section of the Naval Flight Test Group at NAS Anacostia and flying three Curtiss F6C-4s. This team lasted just one season, disbanding on 15 April 1931. Meanwhile, at NAS Pensacola, Florida, the ‘Three T’Gallant’ls’ formed in 1929 within Training Squadron 5 (VN-5D8), again flying three Curtiss F6C-4 fighters. The team converted to the Boeing F4B-1A in early 1930 before finally adopting the Boeing F2B-1 in 1931. The Three T’Gallant’ls’ disbanded at the end of the 1932 season, when the team’s pilots were transferred to other duties within the Navy.

There were several other un-named US Navy groups performing aerobatics during the same period, but it was not until the immediate post-war era that another recognised naval flight demonstration team emerged. This was, of course, the ‘Blue Angels’, in 1946.

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The first jet teams

In 1948 an unusual and unique trio formed the US Navy’s first jet aerobatic team, ‘The Gray Angels’, which comprised three McDonnell FH-1 Phantoms flown by three serving rear admirals. The team was formed to demonstrate the US Navy’s new jet aircraft and caused a lot of media attention, primarily in the mid-west and east of the US, until the team was finally disbanded late in 1948.

The ‘Marine Phantoms’ was another team in existence during the early days of the ‘Blue Angels’ and was formed within the US Marine Corps squadron VMF-122 at MCAS Cherry Point, North Carolina, early in 1949. Flying five FH-1 Phantoms, the ‘Marine Phantoms’ was initially led by Lt Col Marion E. Carl, and was allocated 12 aircraft, in case of serviceability problems. It exhibited at shows and events throughout the country during 1949-50. In mid-1950, however, VMF-122 re-equipped with the F2H-1 Banshee and was deployed to Korea following the outbreak of the conflict there.

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In 1930 the ‘Three T’Gallant’ls’ converted from the Curtiss F6C to the Boeing F4B-1A (with -4 tails), the type being retained for one season before the arrival of the F2B-1.

‘Rotary Wing Angels’

The US Navy also formed a team of helicopters during 1952-53, The Rotary Wing Angels’ comprising four Bell HTL-5s of HTU-1 at Ellyson Field, near Pensacola, Florida. The HTL-5 was the US Navy version of the Bell 47G, and was fitted with four wheels instead of skids. The team made smoke and performed a show very similar to that of the British Army’s ‘Blue Eagles’ during the early 1970s.

Enter the Skyhawk glider

By 1957 technology was moving on and more jet aircraft were entering service with the US Navy and Marine Corps. With the Korean War over, it was time to return to more peaceful activities, including forming aerobatic display teams. The Douglas A4D Skyhawk was considered a very agile and suitable mount to this end and one of the first fleet squadrons to receive the type was VA-113, the ‘Stingers’ from Air Group 11 stationed at NAS Miramar. Former ‘Blue Angels’ leader Cdr ‘Zeke’ Cormier was assigned to this squadron and immediately formed a quartet on the A4D as the ‘Albino Angels’, which made its debut at NAS Miramar’s Open House in August 1957. The team was limited to a diamond formation, but before it could develop its display further, COMNAVAIRPAC put a stop to the team, stating that the Navy already had one demonstration team – the ‘Blue Angels’. Cdr Cormier had already received further requests for displays, but was reluctant to continue without approval from higher authority. Fortunately, the original leader of the ‘Blue Angels’, Cdr ‘Butch’ Voris, was on the fleet readiness staff of COMNAVAIRPAC and permitted the ‘Albino Angels’ to continue. The ‘Albino Angels’ became the first aerobatic team to operate two shows from an aircraft carrier, the USS Shangri-La, producing red and blue smoke during the displays. Following these two aircraft-carrier shows, the team disbanded.

Above right: Four A-4Bs of the ‘Air Barons’ are seen in action in 1970. By now the formation was well established as the US Navy’s ‘second’ precision display team.

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Above and left: BuNos 142138 and 142893 were A-4B Skyhawks assigned to VA-8 ‘Air Barons’, the previous VA-725 having been redesignated as such in July 1968, under the command of Jim Mahoney.

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Right: BuNo. 147669 was an A-4L assigned to the ‘Air Barons’. Note the aircraft’s individual number ‘6’ and that its starboard side is illustrated on page 718.

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While the ‘Blue Angels’ were busy performing their displays worldwide, it was another 10 years before a ‘secondary’ US Navy team was founded. This was in 1967, when a team of reserve pilots from VF-725 formed the ‘Air Barons’ at NAS Glenview, Illinois, with six A-4B Skyhawks, this type having equipped the squadron since 1964. The Chief of Naval Air Reserve Training requested a US Navy representation at the Canadian International Air Show at Toronto and it was here on 1 September 1967 that the ‘Air Barons’ gave their first performance, having had little time to practice. The three-day celebration was viewed by more that 500,000 spectators. The initial format of the team’s programme was flown with a five-ship open V formation that included one A-4 equipped with an inflight refuelling pod. As part of its 30-minute demonstration, the team conducted a simulated ‘buddy’ refuelling, which saw it recognised as the only naval flight demonstration team to perform this intricate manoeuvre.

In July 1968 VA-725 became VA-8 and, following his promotion to commander, Jim Mahoney became the commanding officer of the ‘Air Barons’. On 3031 August 1968 the team gave two return performances at the Canadian International Air Show and in the same year its pilots were given bright red flying suits and helmets after receiving official designation as a flight demonstration team. The year 1969 was marred by the tragic loss of Captain Schram, who was killed during an ‘Air Barons’ display at Reading, Pennsylvania. Undaunted, the team continued through the season with displays across the US. In 1970, VA-8 was disbanded and re-established as VA-209, and on 15 May 1970 the team began to re-equip with the improved A-4L Skyhawk variant. Based on the A-4C (A4D-2N), the aircraft’s improvements included a more powerful engine, wing lift spoilers and a more advanced electronic system.

Apart from one aircraft bursting a tyre on landing during a show and severing a hydraulic brake cable, the team continued without further incidents. By 1971 the ‘Air Barons’ had achieved ‘headline’ status and had perfected their routine to include what was claimed to be the tightest six-ship ‘Delta’ formation ever. Unfortunately, VA-209 was to be disbanded while the ‘Air Barons’ were at their pinnacle, but the team was allowed to complete the 1971 schedule, its last show being over Kissimmee, Florida, for the opening of Disney World on 4 November.

US Army a team helicopter 

The US Army also formed display teams during the post-war period, all of which flew helicopters. A team of four Sikorsky H-19 Chickasaw helicopters might have seemed an unlikely mount for a display team, but became immensely popular when it was formed in 1948 as the Army Helicopter Drill Team, with each machine being differently painted as a ‘boy’ or ‘girl’. The team perfected its performance and was called the ‘Square Dance Team’ in 1952, being joined by a solo Bell OH-1 Sioux dressed as a clown called Bozo, complete with face and hat! The ‘Square Dance Team’ continued to display until two helicopters collided in a disastrous accident on 27 August 1956. Fortunately no one was injured in the collision and two new replacement H-19s were hastily repainted to replicate the crashed machines in preparation for a show just two days later. The team continued to perform without incident until disbanding at the end of the 1961 season. However, Bozo continued as a solo performer until 1964.

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Below: Based on rebuilt A-4C airframes, the A-4L variant was optimised for use by US Naval Reserve squadrons, including the ‘Air Barons’ of VA-209 from 1970.

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The next US Army helicopter team to form was the ‘Silver Eagles’ in 1972, with the aim of demonstrating the expanding capabilities of Army aviation and to stimulate public interest in the modern US Army. The primary mission of the team was essentially to assist US Army personnel procurement and retention efforts by creating awareness of the career opportunities available in the US Army. The team contributed to the public understanding of the role of US Army aircraft by demonstrating their proficiency and versatility during precision flying performances before both military and civilian audiences.

The ‘Silver Eagles’ performed at more than 220 airshows between 1972 and 1976. The team’s first public performance was at Cairns Army Airfield, Fort Rucker, Alabama, on 20 May 1972, as part of the post’s Armed Forces Day Celebration. The team’s first official performance, however, was at Transpo ’72, held at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, DC, on 27 May 1972. The team’s final official demonstration took place at NAS Pensacola, Florida, on November 1976, but the last time the ‘Silver Eagles’ performed was on 23 November 1976, at Knox Field, Fort Rucker.

Equipped with seven OH-6A Cayuse helicopters, the ‘Silver Eagles’ was the only helicopter demonstration team in the United States at the time. None of the manoeuvres accomplished by the team were considered stunts or daredevil feats – all were flying techniques US Army aviators had to master as part of their training.

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The US Army’s Helicopter Drill Team featured both ‘boy’ (above)……and ‘girl’ H-19s, the latter with polka dot paint schemes.

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The team was completed by another ‘girl’ Chickasaw… …and a ‘boy’. They were later known as the ‘Square Dance Team’.

The ‘Silver Eagles’ flew seven aircraft during each demonstration, comprising lead, left wing, right wing, slot, lead solo, opposing solo and Bozo the Clown, who was resurrected complete with a clown’s face and hat and performed antics to entertain the audience while the other aircraft were positioning for the next manoeuvre. Speeds and altitudes for precision manoeuvres ranged from 0 mph at ground level to 140 mph (225 km/h) at 1,000 ft (305 m). The most unique aspect of the performance was that there was at least one helicopter performing in front of the crowd at all times during the duration of the 35-minute presentation.

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Above: Bozo the Clown began life as a foil to the US Army’s H-19 ‘Square Dance Team’, becoming a solo performer in 1964 and later joining the ‘Silver Eagles’ team.

Based at Fort Rucker, Alabama, the ‘Silver Eagles’ consisted of 25 handpicked enlisted volunteers and 12 ‘exceptional’ officer aviators. The initial colour scheme for the ‘Silver Eagles’ was gloss Olive Drab/brown and white with the team’s badge worn on the fuselage. This was changed to a blue and white scheme in 1974 before the team disbanded at the end of the 1976 season.

In 1997, the Army Aviation Heritage Foundation was founded to operate a fleet of flyable, historic US Army aircraft. This fleet is growing rapidly, with some 20 aircraft currently on hand. Some are owned by Army Aviation Heritage Foundation members and are operated by the AAHF under a loan agreement, while the others are Foundation-owned.

Based at Atlanta, Georgia, the AAHF is a non-profit public educational foundation dedicated to presenting the Army Aviation story to the American people through narrated flying presentations and static displays of the actual aircraft and equipment used by US Army Aviation.

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Above: An AAHF ‘Sky Soldiers’ AH-1F (AH-1S) gunship performs at Mallards Landing, wearing its latest black and gold scheme.

Below: Formed in 2003, the ‘Sky Soldiers’ operates one C-7 Caribou, one OV-1 Mohawk, two ‘Hueys’, four Cobras, and one OH-6 Cayuse.

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In 2003 the ‘Sky Soldiers’ team was formed by the AAHF as a demonstration outfit with Bell AH-1 Cobras in standard US Army Olive Drab colours. These are supported by several other veteran former US Army aircraft types, both fixed-wing and rotary, and mostly dating from the Vietnam era. In July 2006 the unmistakable sound of four Cobra attack helicopters shook the ground at Dayton, Ohio, as the ‘Sky Soldiers’ made their public debut with their newly-acquired and repainted black and gold AH-IF Cobras, representing a first-time appearance of precision flying with these helicopter gunships.

Whether US Army, Navy or Marine Corps, all of these teams fly, or flew, in their own unique way, while demonstrating the latest ‘state-of-the-art’ manoeuvres and showing off aircraft flown by US military aviators of their era. While few of these units were ever ‘officially’ designated as exhibition teams, all of them were important in representing the strong tradition of teamwork in military flying. They all shared the common goal of striving for nothing less than perfection.

Acknowledgements

The author would like to express his thanks to Dave Menard and to Josh Frizzell for provision of the ‘Sky Soldiers’ photographs.

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Above: Since they are a non-military formation, the ‘Sky Soldiers’ Cobras wear (well hidden) civilian registrations. ‘Real’ registrations appear in grey or red on the tail boom of the helicopters. Illustrated here are N233LE/23233 (top) and N830HF/15283 (bottom)

US Navy, Marine Corps and Army teams

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Douglas A4D-1 Skyhawk 142222/301-NH, flown by Cdr ‘Zeke’ Cormier, VA-113 ‘Albino Angels’, NAS Miramar, CA, 1957

Some sources quote this team’s blue trim as being metallic.

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Bell H-13E Sioux 3772, US Army ‘Helicopter Square Dance Team’, 1954-55

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Sikorsky H-19D Chickasaw, US Army ‘Helicopter Square Dance Team’, 1956

All four of the H-19s used by the team are shown, two boys (upper profiles) and two girls. All national insignia and serials were overpainted.

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Hughes OH-6A Cayuse 12954/7, US Army ‘Silver Eagles’, 1972-73

This aircraft was ‘dressed’ as ‘Bozo the Clown’. Note ‘ARMY’ title on centreline of fuselage underside.

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Hughes OH-6A Cayuse 17164/7, US Army ‘Silver Eagles’, 1974-76

This aircraft was ‘dressed’ as ‘Bozo the Clown’. Note ‘ARMY’ title on centreline of fuselage underside.

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Hughes OH-6A Cayuse 16066/1, US Army ‘Silver Eagles’, 1974-76

This aircraft flew in the team’s standard dark blue/white. Note ‘ARMY’ title on centreline of fuselage underside.

Bell AH-1F HueyCobra 23233/N233LE, Army Aviation Historical Foundation ‘Sky Soldiers’, Mallards Landing, Georgia, 2006

This aircraft wears a very small civilian registration in blue-grey aft of the tailplane on its tail boom. Finished in a gloss black and golden yellow.

75 percent of 1:72 scale

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