Super blue: tricked and flipped out

 First F/A-18E Modified, Tested, Ready for Blue Angels

By Rob Perry

A promise made several years ago to the Blue Angels came closer to fruition this summer as the first F/A-18E Super Hornet designated to replace the Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron’s (NFDS) F/A-18 Legacy Hornets arrived for upgrades and testing at Naval Air Station (NAS) Patuxent River, Maryland.

Dubbed the “Super Blue,” the F/A-18E is the first of 18 Super Hornets scheduled to be delivered by the end of the year in time for the 2021 Blue Angels air show season, slated to begin in April.

The 2020 air shows were cancelled in accordance with Navy and CDC guidelines brought on by the COVID-19 global pandemic.

Since 2015, the Navy has been analyzing how to upgrade the Blue Angels to the Super Hornet while balancing fleet readiness. An in-depth study of aircraft systems and flight characteristics was conducted beginning in December 2017. At the same time, to ensure a safe transition from the Hornet to the Super Hornet, the Blue Angels developed a new demonstration routine tailored to the F/A-18E/F as well as undertook a comprehensive risk and airframe fatigue reduction effort.

The Super Hornet replacement of the Legacy Hornet is expected to improve safety margins, reduce aircraft fatigue and require less maintenance. In many other ways, the Super Hornet offers improved performance—it has more thrust available, especially at low altitudes, enabling tighter turns and faster acceleration for some maneuvers, and offers better vertical and looping performance.

Out of Storage, Into the Skies

Air Test & Evaluation Squadron (VX) 23 conducts flight testing of the first “Super Blue” for the Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron this summer. (U.S. Navy photo)

In order to prepare the Super Hornet to perform maneuvers and stunts that have made the Blue Angels famous, it first had to undergo alterations and testing, some of which were performed by engineers and pilots with Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 23 at NAS Patuxent River.

The Super Blue started its journey at Cecil Field, Florida, where it was taken out of preservation and modified, which included installation of an artificial feel spring for the control stick, a stopwatch, smoke and fuel pump switches and fuel pressure warning lights in the cockpit; an inverted fuel pump system; and the removal of the aircraft’s standard M61 cannon, replaced by the smoke system used to create trails during airshow demonstrations. Additionally, a software load unique to Blue Angels aircraft was installed.

The aircraft arrived at Patuxent River in May and upgrades to the fuel system and flight testing were completed in early August.

“After a few weeks of maintenance repairs and instrumentation of the aircraft, we began testing at the end of June,” said Lt. Sean “Daywalker” Cawley, flight test officer with VX-23. “The aircraft we were testing hadn’t flown in nine years, so it had some maintenance quirks that our awesome maintenance department solved, and they got the jet in great working order. During testing, the aircraft handled just like any other Super Hornet would. The only differences apparent to the pilot are the Blue Angels’ cockpit modifications.”

The inverted fuel pumps are necessary modifications to the stunt aircraft, allowing the jet to remain overturned for a prolonged period. VX-23 head project engineer Kris Haines said Blue Angels’ inverted maneuvers exceed normal limits, necessitating the fuel system modification. The fuel system upgrades to the Super Hornet are very similar to those made to the Legacy Hornets, which include using the same fuel pumps and activation switch.

“The Blue Angels fuel system modification consists of an electric fuel pump installed at the top of each engine’s feed tank,” Haines said. “The Super Hornet feed tanks integrate an inverted flight compartment at the bottom of the tank to trap fuel used by the production fuel pump during negative-G maneuvers. The [modified and installed] Blue Angels electric fuel pumps, activated by the pilot during inverted flight, pump fuel into the inverted fuel compartment of each feed tank to then be used by the production fuel pump in supplying each engine with continuous fuel during the extended duration inverted maneuvers.”

A VX-23 pilot tests the modified fuel system during a signature Blue Angels’ move—an inverted negative-G flight. (U.S. Navy photo)

An additional alteration to the aircraft’s landing gear was required for extended inverted flight.

“The landing gear struts have to be over-serviced so that during inverted flight, the gear stays extended,” Cawley said. “Otherwise, the heavy gear would fall under their own weight and air loads and set a weight-on-wheels condition which drastically changes the response of the flight controls if the jet thinks it is on the ground,” Cawley said.

Taking Her Out for A Spin

The Super Blue was delivered for testing to NAS Pax River due to the presence of VX-23, but also because the base is home to the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School (USNTPS), where experienced Navy pilots undergo an intense 11-month course.

While at USNTPS, students fly a large stable of aircraft and perform qualitative evaluation flights on aircraft brought to the school house, Cawley said. Prior to training at USNTPS, prospective students must have spent time deployed with a fleet squadron. Test pilots who flew the Super Blue at VX-23 were deployed with F/A-18 squadrons prior to USNTPS training, a trait that Blue Angels pilots also share, “and are very comfortable getting back into the aircraft,” Cawley said.

“VX-23 test pilots and Blue Angels pilots have a strong tactical and professional background to get to these competitive follow-on tours. Obviously, after leaving those tours, each of us receive more specialized training to prepare us for our next jobs, be it a year at USNTPS or the Blues training work-up program for their new pilots.”

Although VX-23 test pilots and engineers routinely qualify a variety of aircraft for performance and are adept with the flying qualities of the F/A-18, testing the Super Blue was different.

“The maneuvers evaluated for the NFDS included some things that are outside the normal aircraft operating manual and outside normal fleet maneuvers,” Cawley said. “The things you see in the airshows such as the dirty roll—an aileron roll [a 360-degree roll along the longitudinal axis of the aircraft] performed with the landing gear down shortly after takeoff—are absolutely something reserved specifically for airshows, but with the NFDS retiring their Hornets, it was our job to ensure that that maneuver and others in the Blues’ show can be safely performed in the Super Hornet as well.”

In all, the Super Blue went through the same testing routines that the Legacy Hornets were put through to qualify for Blue Angels shows.

“Some of this testing included aircraft envelope expansion to allow the Blues to fly with the landing gear extended faster than we normally can, fly inverted with the landing gear down and execute consecutive aileron rolls,” Cawley said. “The aircraft flying qualities were evaluated with the artificial feel spring that the Blues use and we also did some performance evaluations for take-offs with the flaps up. [The spring] is attachable to the control stick [and] provides constant forward force on the stick. The Blue Angels pilots use this to help them fly more precisely in close formation.”

Cawley also explained that combat flight profiles and Blue Angels profiles are somewhat different in that the aircraft fly in much closer formations than typical for the stunt shows.

“Blue Angels flight profiles involve a lot of practice and working up to flying as close as they do during their shows,” he said. “Fleet aviators typically only fly in close formation when flying together through clouds or returning to base after a flight. Most fleet formation flying is further apart to facilitate greater pilot attention to their own aircraft sensors and the fight rather than the 100-percent dedicated attention to close formation flying required of any extremely close formation. Both combat and NFDS shows require intense preparation, solid teamwork and trust between the pilots.”

Lt. Sean “Daywalker” Cawley, flight test officer with VX-23, coordinated and conducted flight tests of the Blue Angels’ Super Blue this summer

VX-23 pilots usually test aircraft with different load outs, including extra fuel tanks and ordnance, but Blue Angels aircraft are completely stripped down, called a “slick” load out, with no external fuel tanks and all weapons pylons removed.

During testing, Cawley said, one typical pilot accompaniment tended to be a nuisance during lower speed inverted flight: the helmet bag.

“Fleet pilots rarely fly inverted at less than 1G,” Cawley said. “While they may be inverted during combat maneuvering, it’s usually under positive Gs. Fleet aviators typically fly with a helmet bag stuffed on the right side of the cockpit that will have checklists, instrument approach plates and various other things, so any time you fly inverted at -1G, that bag has a horrible habit of flying up, hitting the top of the canopy and sliding back to where we can’t reach it. When we flew the tests to evaluate the fuel system for the extended inverted time, the test pilots didn’t bring the helmet bag and just brought the checklist which is small enough to be stowed.”

In addition to Haines and members of the fuel systems evaluation team, a test conductor and additional engineers monitored the aircraft’s test parameters, which were sent to a control room from the cockpit. The test team monitored fuel pressure, fuel quantities and valve positions to ensure the system was working as designed.

“The testing validated the modification’s ability to provide sufficient fuel to the engines under inverted flight longer than the aircraft was designed,” Cawley said. “No dangerous drops in feed tank fuel quantity or fuel pressure were seen.”

All Super Hornets with the same modifications for the NFDS do not require additional testing, Cawley said. Once testing was completed at NAS Pax River, the Super Blue returned to Cecil Field for additional modifications and to receive its signature Blue Angels paint job (see FRCSE Paints, Maintains, Modifies Super Blues article below).

While it remains to be seen whether aviation enthusiasts will see the fruits of this labor in 2021, COVID-19 protocols did remain in place during upgrades and testing but did little to hamper deadlines.

Capt. Eric Doyle, director of the Blue Angels Super Hornet Transition Team, departs the Boeing facility at Cecil Field in Jacksonville, Fla., for Naval Air Station Pensacola in the first Blue Angels F/A-18 Super Hornet, July 27. (U.S. Navy photo by MC2 Christopher Gordon)

“While much of the flight test planning and coordination of testing assets were conducted via telework situations, the actual flight test execution required on-site participation,” Haines said. “In all, the COVID work climate had little impact on the overall test program, which was completed on schedule to support the Super Blue transition.”

“As I’m sure many people have seen through this time, a lot of work can successfully be done while teleworking using various conferencing systems, but communication in general is difficult and the additional hurdles didn’t help,” Cawley said. “However, the pros at VX-23 worked hard and finished the fuel system evaluation on schedule.”

Rob Perry is editor and staff writer for Naval Aviation News.  

FRCSE Paints, Maintains, Modifies Super Blues

Fleet Readiness Center Southeast painted the inaugural “Super Blue” for the Blue Angels. (U.S. Navy photo)

By Ashley Lombardo

Fleet Readiness Center Southeast (FRCSE) recently applied the final coat of paint on the inaugural F/A-18 Super Hornet for the U.S. Navy’s Flight Demonstration Squadron, the Blue Angels.

The aircraft’s distinctive paint, cobalt blue with yellow trim, is just the work completed by the depot that the eye can see. FRCSE also performs maintenance and modifications that range from the removal of weapons systems to the outfitting of each aircraft with a control stick spring system for more precise aircraft control.

The team’s transition from the F/A-18 Hornet to the F/A-18 Super Hornet, a more powerful jet that’s approximately 25 percent larger, would not be possible without FRCSE. The Legacy Hornet has served as the primary aircraft for the Blue Angels since 1986 and will be retired in 2021.

“Knowing we are playing a critical role in making the Super Hornets ready for the team is an incredibly proud moment for the command as a whole,” said Col. Fred Schenk, FRCSE’s Commanding Officer. “The work is ongoing, and we’re tremendously honored to be a part of the transition. We aren’t just providing the well-known Blue Angels paint scheme, but we are performing the necessary maintenance and modifications to sustain the aircraft throughout their service life with the team.”

According to Rick Heffner, FRCSE’s paint shop supervisor, the depot has been applying the Blue Angel’s signature paint for years, but when the demonstration squadron decided to transition to the Super Hornet aircraft, Heffner and his team had their work cut out for them.

“It was decided last year that FRCSE would continue to provide this service for the new airframe. The Super Hornet is larger than the Legacy Hornet, so getting the proper size markings for the aircraft was a challenge initially,” Heffner said.

The painting process for these aircraft takes approximately 10 days. It’s a job that requires a significant amount of prep work, which includes sanding, washing, masking, priming and seam-sealing before applying the blue, yellow, white and clear paint coats and accents. Each process requires a keen eye for detail and meticulous time management.

Matt Lindberg, FRCSE’s deputy director of the F/A-18E/F MRO Production Line, said the first Super Hornet slated for conversion arrived at Cecil Commerce Center in December 2017 and work is expected to continue throughout 2021.

“FRCSE is performing the planned maintenance interval (PMI), modifications (MODs) and other over and above work to get these jets ready for years of uninterrupted service by the Blue Angels. A couple of the jets were in storage for five to six years, so we had to bring them back up to code,” he said. “The work we do can take anywhere from 90 days to a year, depending on the condition of the jet and work package requirements.”

Once the aircraft arrives at Cecil, it goes through the same basic life cycle: PMI, MODs and is then towed to the main facility at Naval Air Station (NAS) Jacksonville for paint strip and prime. Boeing then completes Blue Angel-specific modifications such as the addition of an oil tank for the smoke generation system before returning the aircraft to NAS Jacksonville for final paint. Lastly, Boeing finalizes the assembly and performs flight tests.

To date, FRCSE has performed PMI or MODs on nine of the first 11 Super Hornet aircraft slated for the Blue Angels.

“As a team, we take a tremendous amount of pride in the work we’ve completed and continue to do in support of the new platform for the Blue Angels. Every day our employees strive to maximize their performance to produce quality products at an ever-increasing speed,” Lindberg said.

“I can confidently speak for the rest of our team when I say we cannot wait to see the jets we have worked diligently on take to the skies in cities around the United States.”

Ashley Lombardo is a public affairs specialist with Fleet Readiness Center Southeast Public Affairs Office.

Blue Angels’ ‘New’ C-130J Delivered

C-130 pilots and crew assigned to the U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron, the Blue Angels, pose with the team’s newly acquired C-130J Super Hercules in Cambridge, England, on June 6. (U.S. Navy photo by MC1 Jess Gray)

By Valerie Doster

Through a combined effort between the U.S. Navy, the United Kingdom Ministry of Defence (U.K. MoD) and the Tactical Airlift Program Office, the Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron (NFDS), received a revamped C-130J Super Hercules logistics aircraft on Aug. 4.

The aircraft, purchased from the U.K. MoD in June 2019, underwent year-long refresh, turning the aircraft into the beloved logistics and transport aircraft used by the Blue Angels.

The program office and U.K. MoD co-managed the refurbishment, working through a Ministry of Defence contract. All efforts were performed at Marshall Aerospace and Defense Group (ADG) in Cambridge, England. 

“The teams were united in the one task, to meet the needs of the fleet,” said Capt. Steve Nassau, Tactical Airlift Program manager. “The return of an organic-based logistics aircraft to the Blue Angels squadron has freed up much needed assets being utilized temporarily to meet the NFDS mission needs. Thank you to everyone across the NAVAIR enterprise and across the ocean who assisted in this delivery.”

The newly acquired “J-Model” Super Hercules completes the NFDS transition from the previous legacy C-130T Hercules, which the squadron used for 17 years and retired in May 2019. While the C-130J will be the only variant of its type used by the Navy, the C-130J is familiar to the U.S. Air Force and shares common components with the KC-130J currently flown by the Marine Corps.

“It required a collaborative effort between NAVAIR engineering and Lockheed Martin to identify configuration deltas and test requirements,” said Jack Miller, Airframes Integrated Program Team lead. “These efforts were done to meet U.S. and FAA requirements and included a major rework inspection, hardware and software configuration changes, and ground and flight testing. The teams were also assisted by the C/KC-130 Fleet Readiness Center Team at Cherry Point, North Carolina, which created the reconfiguration plan.”

Additionally, detailed work, spanning across the NAVAIR enterprise, had to go on behind the scenes to ensure the squadron’s safe operation, and its ability to support and maintain a new type-model aircraft. Administrators built aircraft logbooks from U.K. MoD formatted information. NAVAIR engineers and logisticians reviewed and updated maintenance publications and procedures. NAVSUP personnel worked with the squadron and base supply officers to understand proper provisioning. The support equipment team identified C-130J specific support equipment and delivered it to the NFDS. This required routine communication between personnel from the program office, Center of Naval Aviation Training (CNATRA) and the NFDS to ensure proper adherence to the Naval Aviation Maintenance Program.

The refresh was not without its challenges. Teams on both sides of the ocean overcame several issues, including international travel restrictions, mandatory teleworking and social distancing restrictions brought on by the COVID-19 global pandemic. Without NAVAIR on-site engineering support, the teams had to overcome time zone differences, communicating primarily through phone, email and Skype to prevent delays.

“The aircraft was about to receive its final paint when the worldwide pandemic hit in full,” Miller said. “With an ocean between us, shipping parts, team members and equipment overseas was a challenge. Working during a pandemic had our teams executing creative ways to reconstruct a way forward. Marshall ADG implemented safe ways to proceed with the repairs and paint, including working with flight and maintenance crews to complete testing. The NFDS crews endured 14 days of quarantine before actually being able to run the aircraft through its tests. Kudos to everyone on their flexibility and determination to get the job done right.”

Valerie Doster supports Tactical Airlift Program Communications