Rare air: Blue Angels, Thunderbirds make joint flight

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Dept. of Defense photo / via Facebook

Some of the best pilots in America shared the skies over Florida this week as the Air Force’s Thunderbirds and the Navy’s Blue Angels spent several days training side by side, culminating with a joint flight over Pensacola Beach.

The eight Air Force F-16 pilots and more than 50 other officers and support staff from the Thunderbirds joined the six F/A-18 Blue Angels pilots and support staff at Naval Air Station Pensacola.

"I feel like a little kid right now, standing out here with the Thunderbirds flying overhead, watching them park their jets and getting to shake their hands," Navy Cmdr. Ryan Bernacchi, the commander of the Blue Angels, said earlier this week after welcoming the Nevada-based Thunderbirds to Pensacola.

The U.S. military's two elite fighter jet demonstration teams are seldom in the same place at the same time. Under Department of Defense guidelines, the two teams are not allowed to perform at the same air shows because the military wants to cover as much recruiting territory as possible by using both teams in different locations throughout the year. The two teams haven't been in Pensacola together for more than 15 years.

"I love being here, it is so very cool," said Air Force Maj. Alex Turner, one of the Thunderbird pilots. "You can see how I'm smiling about this."

Even though the two teams do not get to perform together during the season, they have a strong bond, said Air Force Lt. Col. Jason Heard, commander of the Thunderbirds.

"There has always been a lot of respect between the two teams," Heard said. "We have a lot in common and we are looking forward to the week."

The joint training came about after Bernacchi and Heard met during a Las Vegas air show conference in December.

"We exchanged some thoughts and ideas and have been in touch since then. As two flight leaders, commanding officers, we communicate back and forth and send texts like 'Hey, great Super Bowl,' or whatever," Bernacchi said.

From the public affairs office to aircraft maintainers, staff from both teams shared ideas and got to know each other during the three-day joint training.  Several members of each team took flights the other squad’s aircraft.

Storms interfered with some of the planned flights, but plenty of people lined Pensacola Beach on Wednesday afternoon to see both teams take flight.  They performed a rare ‘double delta’ formation -- six planes each -- to mark the end of the joint training.

Both teams have busy air show schedules for the rest of the year.

Information from the Pensacola (Fla.) News Journal via the Associated Press was used in this report.
Video courtesy John Mason-Smith.