The U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels flight demonstration team is getting new planes—but they won’t be F-35s. The team is transitioning to the F/A-18 Super Hornet and skipping the F-35 “Panther.” The new plane simply isn’t ready and the cost of purchasing F-35s for the team would easily exceed a billion dollars.
The U.S. Navy’s elite Blue Angels have flown many different airplanes since their creation in 1946, but none more than the F/A-18 Hornet. The Blues have flown Hornets since 1986, first the F/A-18A then the newer F/A-18C planes still flying today.
But newer is a relative term, and the Navy is phasing out F/A-18Cs as they become increasingly difficult and expensive to maintain. In the future, U.S. Navy carriers will go to sea with two squadrons of F/A-18E (one seater) and F/A-18F (two seater) Super Hornet jets and two squadrons of F-35s.
On Monday, August 14th Naval Air Systems Command issued a $17 million contract to Boeing to convert 11 existing Navy Super Hornets—both single and double seaters—to demonstration aircraft configuration, a process expected to be complete by 2021. According to USNI News Blue Angel aircraft are fitted with civilian instrument landing systems, a seven pound spring on the stick to improve close formation flying, oil-based smoke generators, and the team’s distinctive blue and yellow paint job.
What about the Navy’s latest fighter jet, the F-35? The F-35C was supposed be initial operations capable at the end of 2015—a status that indicates at least a squadron of planes can carry out limited combat operations. That date has slipped to somewhere between late 2018 and early 2019.
That date isn’t too far off, but there’s another reason to put off the F-35: replacing the Blues’ Hornets with “Panthers”—as the pilots call them—would be enormously expensive. Currently, the F-35C is running about $121 million a copy. Purchasing 11 F-35s for the flight demonstration team would cost $1.34 billion, or about as much as a new destroyer. It’s more cost effective to convert aircraft that have already flown operationally and are paid for.
A third reason why the F-35C isn’t all that suitable for the Blue Angels? Taking local celebrities, news media, and other non-military personnel up for demonstration flights is part of the team’s mission, to give the public a better understanding of the what it means to fly the jets. The F-35 is exclusively a single seat aircraft, while the new Blues fleet will have two F/A-18F twin seater jets for VIP work.
Eventually there might be enough used F-35s to outfit the Blue Angels, possibly early production aircraft the Navy acquired starting in 2010. Still, it’s not a great fit for one of the most amazing flight demonstration teams of all time. The Blue Angels could easily end up pleasing crowds with F/A-18 Hornet for a half century.