PNN Meets Blue Angel Number One
What does it take to be the Commanding Officer of the Blue Angels, the Navy's premier Flight Demonstration team? For Commander Greg McWherter, it takes guts, incredible focus and a sense of humor.
I caught up with Blue Angel Number One recently at the Officers' Club at NAS Fallon. Even surrounded by some of the best strike-fighter pilots in the Navy and Marine Corps, Greg McWherter was held in high esteem, and rightly so. Answering questions from experienced FA-18 pilots, CDR McWherter said the hardest part of his job is the flying.
Imagine having five highly critical fellow pilots critiquing every move you make over the course of a 35 minute show! There is not much room for error when the jets you're flying at 500 miles per hour are separated by 18 inches wingtip to wingtip.
Being a former squadron commander, McWherter said he was well prepared to handle the normal responsibilities of running a 75-member team, and that interacting with the crowds is great, but learning to fly precision aerobatics in tight formation takes real work, and is a continuous process.
What you may not know is that McWherter also spent two years living in Northern Nevada while serving as an instructor at TOPGUN, which is located at Naval Air Station Fallon, about an hour from Reno.
PNN: Why did you want to join the Blue Angels?
CDR McWherter: I've always really appreciated what the Blue Angels have done for the Navy and Marine Corps, but when I was a junior officer, my decision was, I was going to go to TOPGUN, and I knew I was putting other things that were interesting to me on the back burner.
When I was finishing up my skipper tour, a couple of the guys said 'Hey you know they're hiring a new commanding officer for the Blue Angels?' and I said A: there's no reason they would choose me, and B: I just don't know if I'm the person they would want to take over. But after being in the job for almost a year now, I don't think there's any better way to give back to the Navy and Marine Corps. You go out and talk to the folks on the crowd line and meet people at air shows and you get them excited about what we do in the Navy and Marine Corps; things that we take for granted for years and years. You get them excited. You realize that five, ten, fifteen years from now there's going to be someone doing what I'm doing right now, and they're doing it because someone like me talked to them.
PNN: What are your memories of Northern Nevada?
McWherter: We moved here and we realized (Fallon) is a small town- there's no crime, there's no traffic. We realized it's a great place to raise our daughter. Of all the places we've lived, she remembers learning how to ride horses, going on hikes, going to places like Tahoe, or going hiking in the Stillwaters. She doesn't remember half of what we did in Jacksonville (Florida) or Virginia Beach. So I think that places like Fallon still have a great appeal to people like us.
PNN: What are the differences between TOPGUN and the Blue Angels?
McWherter: The differences are actually very few. The similarities are amazing. TOPGUN is for all practical purposes, run by junior officers, and that's the beauty of it. The Blue Angels are the same way. Although I lead the flight demonstration and I lead the brief, I don't lead the debrief. There's no rank at the Blue Angels, just like there's no rank at TOPGUN.
We are very strict about our standards, we will not leave a meeting until an issue is resolved. The same thing happens at TOPGUN. We fine ourselves, we call 'penalty' on ourselves just like golf. That's what we do at TOPGUN, so I think the similarities are amazing. Everyone in the debrief is responsible for identifying their own discrepancies, their own mistakes, and it's very much like a TOPGUN debrief but on steroids. We haven't taken any shots, we haven't dropped any bombs, we've done nothing but fly formation, but we will tear a formation flight down in minute detail; we'll go watch it in super slow motion on a video tape to reiterate what we talked about."
(Note: There's a bit of a legend from when Greg McWherter was a Lieutenant stationed at TOPGUN in Fallon: Winter was approaching, and he and another instructor had a contest to see who would be the first to put the top on their Jeep Wrangler. That winter, McWherter was often seen driving around the base in his topless 1977 Jeep Wrangler, with snow flying out the sides.)
PNN: Why didn't you put the top on your Jeep?
McWherter: (Laughs) It was pride! One of the reasons I bought a jeep is because I wanted a convertible automobile that I could have the top off year-round. So when it rains, it rains; it drains out the bottom. When it snows it snows; it just drains out the bottom. Now granted, when you drive through the front gate and there's frost on the inside and the outside of the windshield and you have to put your head out… I won of course, he had the top on his jeep quite sooner than I did.
PNN: What would surprise people the most about the Blue Angels and what you do?
McWherter: I know people aren't going to believe this, but I think people would be surprised by how hard they work at the little things. We spend a lot of time perfecting the demonstration, because the demonstration is something everyone sees. You would be amazed to go into our office on a day off and find how many guys are there writing letters, returning calls and returning e-mails (from fans.) Quite honestly, in my opinion, the little things make all the difference. When you talk to a guy who sent an e-mail and got a response back immediately…
I volunteered for this job and I volunteered to do those things, so if someone takes the time to send me an e-mail, I'll certainly take the time to reply. The same thing with hand-written notes and phone calls. Everyone works very hard at the little things and that's pretty impressive.
PNN: What the best thing about running into people and kids at air shows?
McWherter: Seeing the look on their faces. The average civilian never gets to see Sailors and Marines at work. They're not invited on the base and they're not invited out to the ship, and they can't ride in a tank. So you bring them to an air show and it's like a little slice of what we do. You walk the crowd line and you see the look on their face and it's amazing; it's the best thing in the world.