The Blue Angels’ new Super Hornets are set to make their Seattle debut in this year’s Seafair air show over Lake Washington. The jets are 25% larger than the legacy Hornets they replaced, and festival promoters are touting them as “Bigger. Louder. Faster.”
The Blue Angels’ stunts and formation flying — with as few as 18 inches between wingtips — have long been a highlight of the festival, which is scheduled for Aug. 5-7 after being canceled the past two years due to COVID-19.
The aerial acrobatics draw enthusiastic crowds, along with criticism from those who object to their noise, promotion of the military, or both.
This year, as in some years past, the Blue Angels have received initial approval to perform the “sneak pass,” a popular maneuver that involves one of the six Super Hornets breaking out of formation and flying as low as 50 feet off the water at close to the speed of sound.
The F/A 18 E/F Super Hornet aircraft can unleash a more powerful sonic air — or pressure — wave compared with its predecessor. This was inadvertently demonstrated during a Jan. 21, 2021, practice run of the maneuver at the Naval Air Facility El Centro in California when a Blue Angel pilot veered slightly off course. The aircraft, which passed within 100 feet of buildings, caused more than $180,000 in damage.
The destructive impact, detailed in witness statements, included knocked-down ceiling tiles, cracked windows, fallen shelves, nails pulled out of plywood and dislodged sheathing in two shear walls designed to help a base fire department building withstand earthquakes, according to a Navy investigative report.
The close flyby of base buildings also injured a dozen personnel, who initially suffered ringing in the ears and headaches that then abated, according to the report.
The Super Hornets, in terms of engine and structure, are roughly the same aircraft as the Navy Boeing EA-18G Growlers, which are based at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island and provide tactical jamming and electronic protection for U.S. military forces.
Navy investigators said the jets create a “noticeably larger localized sonic airflow signature” than the predecessor Hornets, which increases the “probability and severity of future occurrences” such as the damage sustained at El Centro.
To prevent another such incident, Rear Adm. Robert Westendorff, Chief of Naval Air Training, accepted four safety measures, including a slight reduction in the maximum speed for the low-flying sneak pass and banning the maneuver within 200 feet of any structure, vehicle or personnel.
The incident investigation and recommendations were released in response to a federal Freedom of Information Act request from Glen Milner, a Washington peace activist and researcher with the Poulsbo-based Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action.
Milner has protested for years what he calls the militarization of Seafair, and sought to find out more about the Super Hornet aircraft.
“Seafair was saying they would be coming, and would be louder, so I was wondering — how much louder?” Milner said.
Navy officials said in a written statement the sneak pass maneuver has been safely performed for decades at air shows around the country, and the El Centro incident is the only known incident of damage.
Navy officials said that the new safety measures will prevent a reoccurrence of the incident.
A final decision on whether to perform the maneuver in Seattle will be made by a commanding officer who will assess the conditions during Seafair before proceeding, officials said.
A close pass
The Blue Angels were formed in 1946 to showcase the aircraft and skills of elite Navy flight crews, then evolved into demonstrations of aerobatic maneuvers. The precision flying requires extensive training by Blue Angel crews that rotate through the squadron. It also carries risks. More than two dozen aircrew have died in accidents over the course of the Blue Angels’ 76 years of flying.
The sneak pass is a high-speed, low-altitude maneuver.
At the Naval Air Facility El Centro, which a Navy official says is the site of crucial training, the maneuver brings the aircraft close by buildings and vehicles near an airstrip.
During the 2021 incident, the report detailed two deviations from the flight path that were considered to be minor “and within the bounds of the normal … training cycle.”
The pilot was supposed to keep the aircraft 500 feet from a crowd line. The investigation showed that on this practice run the aircraft was 82 feet inside the line. That course put the plane within 73 feet of one building and within 20 feet of another used by the fire department.
The report found the plane was supposed to be flying at a speed of 620 knots (nearly 725 mph), but instead flew 15 knots faster. That was still below Mach 1, which is equal to the speed of sound. But the extra speed increased the travel of the jet’s sonic wave.
“The sudden passing of the jet scared and startled me, as there was some sort of feeling of air pressure, and as I looked up at the ceiling tiles, I noticed they were sucked up from their usual position … and the windows just shook as well as the walls,” said one witness.
“On Jan. 21, my co-workers and myself working like any other normal day when suddenly a very strong noise from an airplane struck the building and our bodies feeling like an airplane just had crashed into the building,” said another witness whose name was redacted in the disclosure document.
“The vibration shook all of the walls, picture frames and ceiling tiles, leaving the air, our bodies, the furniture and floors covered with heavy debris,” that witness said. “After the strong noise, my hearing and breathing were affected for a few minutes…”
The pilot, in his statement, said the pass was “unremarkable from inside the cockpit.” He did not learn of the damage until after he landed.
Super Hornet shockwaves
In the aftermath of the incident, the Navy commissioned an analysis by an aerodynamics branch of the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division to examine the differences between the Super Hornet and the legacy Hornet at various speeds.
Both the Super Hornet and the Hornet can create sonic waves as the speed of some air flows near their frames reaches the speed of sound.
The analysis found that the Super Hornet creates a “noticeably larger” sonic airflow, creating a shock wave that can reach the ground — and damage buildings — at lower speeds than the older Hornet.
The Navy Growlers on Whidbey Island also fly at low elevations as aircrews practice touch-and-go landings to simulate the difficult task of landing and taking off from aircraft carriers.
But the Growlers during these practice landings are flying at much lower speeds than a Blue Angel during a sneak pass, and thus would not be expected to generate any sonic shockwaves. And Michael Welding, a spokesman for Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, said there are no reports of damage to any Navy buildings from these practice flights.
Still, the Growler training has generated years of complaints, as well as lawsuits about noise and vibrations experienced by some residents on Whidbey Island. Some northwest Washington residents also have alleged health impacts that include elevated blood pressure and hearing loss.