Angels on Heaven:
A Brief Look at the U.S. Navy’s
Blue Angels Air Demonstration Team

In the fall of 1946 the world looked to be at peace. The greatest conflict in the history of humanity, World War II, was over. United States servicemen were being re-deployed back home. Oversees troop levels were drastically reduced as the seeds of victory began to spread all over Europe and Asia. With the decommissioning of so many recruits, the U.S. Navy faced a growing dilemma in mid 1946. How could the Navy present a credible deterrence force against a possible aggressor, (Soviet Russia was now looming large in the East), and how could it persuade decision makers in Washington that it could provide the nation with a credible offensive capability in the future? Especially in the light of what the Navy saw as a growing conflict with the U.S. Army Air Force, soon to be the U.S. Air Force. Also in the minds of Navy aviation planners were the recent rapid advances in aviation technologies and tactics, and how to implement this new capability in it’s carrier-based aircraft. But the most pressing need for the Navy was the recruitment of new pilots. In the past, the Navy had a surplus of candidates to choose from, but due to the stunning success of the Army Air Forces and the reality of the new nuclear delivery environment, the Navy had been hard-pressed to find recruits with the same level of talent as during the War. New answers were needed. One idea floated and eventually implemented was the formation of an air demonstration team. A team that could demonstrate the Navy’s new hardware as well as the latest in aerial-combat tactics to new recruits in an effort to wow them.

The Navy had tried this option before. In 1928, they formed the Three Sea Hawks Aerial Team. Based on the West Coast, the team flew in popular air shows around the country during 1928-1930. They flew the Boeing F2B-1 biplane and were modestly successful. Then, in 1930, a pair of new teams were formed. The Three Gallant Souls of Flight Squadron 1B, flying the venerable Curtiss F6C-4 and the Three Flying Fish, also flying the F6C-4, began performing at airports mainly on the East Coast of the U.S. After a few years of performance, the teams were disbanded as the clouds of war loomed over Europe in late 1930s. In early 1946, and responding to a request by the Secretary of the Navy, the Office of the Chief of Information, headed by the Captain Roy Sempler, began drafting a discussion paper regarding the feasibility of forming a new team for air demonstrations, with the sole intention of presenting the Navy as an attractive and cutting-edge service. After many turns in the chain of command, the papers finally arrived at the desk of Rear Admiral Ralph Davison, commander of the Naval Air Advanced Training Command. He promptly moved the papers down the chain of command. The papers landed first in the office of Commander Hugh Winters who, after carefully studying it, forwarded it to Lieutenant Commander Roy M. Voris, Chief Flight Officer in the Instructors Advanced Training Unit; who promptly wrote that he “concur in advisability of establishing such a team”. Eventually these words reached Washington and the Secretary of the Navy; who instructed Voris to have a preliminary team ready to take the air by June 15th, 1946. Following this order, a team structure was formed. It was to be based at the Navy’s Training Command. There were two major reasons for the initial decision to base the team at Training Command. First and foremost, the original team was assembled in a “draw down” period. This refers to a period of time when the overall structure of the service force, its weapon assets as well as active personnel, are drawn down or reduced to base force structure. Because the Navy was in one of these periods when they ordered the team to be assembled, financial resources were scarce, and the service needed to find a command capable of assimilating this new structure relatively easily, thus the selection of Training Command. The other deciding factor was the aircraft the team would be flying, the F6F. Training Command had extensive experience in handling maintenance for the vaunted Hellcat. There’s another, less reported reason for the selection of TC. The Navy thought that with the introduction of this new air demonstration team it could boost the morale of young pilots, placing an added incentive to choose a naval aviation career and TC was where the recruits went to see actual flying maneuvers in those days. Now that the team was in the process of being formed, a commanding officer was needed. It was a no-brain decision for the Navy; Lieutenant Commander Voris was giving full command of the Navy’s newest asset, properly called the Navy Flight Exhibition Team.

The team’s first ground maintenance crew,
June 13th, 1946. (photo, via author)

Voris handpicked the team members. Each was rated the best of the best. C.W. Barber, R.M. Boudreaux, C.H. Casey, H.B. Hardee, C.C. Hicks, L.J. Johnson, W.L. Miller, L.R. Reid, W.E. Stanzeski, J.D. Turrentine, and T.P. Valentiner; were selected to comprise the first team. After selecting the team members, Voris next task was the selection of the team’s aircraft. Various models were tried. The first aircraft to be considered was the Grumman F4F Wildcat. After extensive research, Voris declined to use the F4F. The F4F possessed a long nose that could restrict forward visibility during inverted maneuvers, added to the perception that the Wildcat was underpowered, this ultimately doomed the aircraft’s chances of being selected. Another option evaluated was the F7F. But the F7F was deemed too big for acrobatic maneuvers. Ultimately, Voris did choose a Cat for the team, the Grumman F6F Hellcat. The selected F6F units were refurbishing platforms having undergone operational cycle refitting. The newly refurbish Hellcats were 33 ft 7 in in length with a height of 13 ft, 1 in. The wing area covered 334 sq ft. Maximum take-off weight was an impressive 15,413 lbs. The power plant installed in these modified Cats were the R2800-10W engine capable of generating 2000 hp. This power plant gave the Hellcat the ability to cruise at 168 miles per hour, with a top speed of just under 380 mph. The operational ceiling was established at 38,300 ft. After these changes, Voris when on to perform a set of minor modifications on the Hellcats, mostly stripping the plane of unnecessary systems such as oil tank armor, ammo boxes and the wing mounted guns, in an effort to make the aircraft lighter. Next on Voris list was the selection of the team’s color. The patriotic red, white and blue was quickly discarded because they represented the newly formed U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds Acrobatic Team; then Voris came back to his original idea of colors, the Navy’s long-time colors: blue and gold. He utilizes a softer shade of blue for the fuselage, mixed with gold or yellow paint to augment the aircraft’s accent. The markings, U.S. Navy logos and serial numbers, were painted in bright yellow.

Back in Washington, the office of the Secretary of the Navy seemed to have a double agenda in creating the team. As we have already seen, the primary force behind the creation of an air demonstration team was the necessity by the Navy to gather a bigger piece of the budgetary pie, especially since the Army Air Force was about to compete directly with the Navy for aircraft related appropriations in the defense budget. But there’s another reason that had floated since late 1947. The U.S. Navy, which saw itself as the senior service and the sole source for force projection, since it’s operational aircraft-carriers structure could deploy anywhere on the globe, did not want allow the Army to challenge that position. Never mind the reason for the creation, by the spring of 1946 the team was up and running. After several months of practicing, Dan Smith, Director for Training at the Navy’s Air Advanced Training Command, wanted take a closer look at the team abilities to perform – abilities highly advertised by Voris. After an afternoon practice run which included Smith at the controls of his own F6F, he was more than pleased with the results. A couple of days after the demonstration, Voris went into the air again, this time in front of Admiral Davison at the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, FL. After a spectacular display of maneuvers and gun tactics which culminated in the simulated downing of a captured Japanese Zero fighter, Admiral Davison recommended to his superior, Admiral Wagner, that the team be given operational status as soon as possible. Wagner flew from Washington to personally observe a demonstration by Voris’s team. When the impressive but uneven show, (there was an incident relating to the parachute on the dummy Zero pilot), ended Admiral Wagner was so impressed that a recommendation to the Secretary of the Navy was promptly written and summited. Full approval for the team came a couple of weeks later from the Secretary.

Rare photo of the US Navy’s Flight Exhibition Team first performance on May 30th, 1946.
The Team is flying a Vee-Type formation. (photo, via author)

June 15th, 1946 saw the public birth of the team. On that day, Voris lead the team during a series of maneuvers and demonstrations in front of a packed house at the Southern Air Show and Exhibition on Craig Field, Jacksonville, FL. To open their first show, the team started by building up speed in a three plane “vee” formation over the runway and then took to the air with a loop. After the initial loop, the formation went into a Cuban eight, and then moved to a chandelle turn, and out that, to a vee roll. From that stunt, the formation moved to into a reverse echelon roll, out of that and into a left echelon roll, then, again into a chandelle turn. After all that turning, the team went out and destroyed the dummy Zero, blasting the fighter out of the air with a short burst of machine gun fire. Back on the ground, the aficionados were stunned. They had never seen the kind of aerial maneuvers they saw today. They were more than trilled, they were exited. They lined up in rows to watch the pilots climb out of their cockpits, and immediately went to them asking for autographs. The team had arrived. Just one more thing remained; a new, more catchy name was needed. ‘Flight Exhibition Team’ was not that glamourous, at least for Voris and the rest of the team members. Voris organized a naming contest around Training Command. The response was unexpected. Hundreds of ideas floated into Voris’s office. None of them wowed Voris or his staff that is, until a proposal came in from an unexpected quarter. Captain William “Bill” Ginter, Chief of Staff of the base commander, told Voris he had another name for consideration: The Blue Lancers. The name ran a bell inside Voris head, the more he thought about it, the more he enjoyed the sound of it. But again, fate interfered. During a trip to New York Voris was glancing at a column called Goings On About Town which focused on New York’s legendary night life. On the column were a list of famous nightclubs, one in particular raised Voris attention, a club called Blue Angels. As it was the case with the Blue Lancers, the name stuck on him.

Agonizing over the decision, Voris and the rest of the team traveled to Omaha, Nebraska for a scheduled appearance. At the preceding press conference, Voris stunned the audience when he enlisted the press help in making the final decision. As is the case with the media, past or present, they pushed the name they found most newsworthy. After the air show was over, the press touted the acrobatic performance with Blue Angel quotes. The Blue Angels had arrived!

– Raul Colon

More information:
Blue Angels Alumni
Blue Angels Official Website

2 thoughts on “Angels on Heaven:
A Brief Look at the U.S. Navy’s
Blue Angels Air Demonstration Team

  1. My father, C H Casey was a member of the 1946-1948 Blue Angel Maintenance Team. Searching for any information, pictures, etc. Glad to share what I do have. I was fortunate a few years ago to be able to write and communicate with 3 other team members, Ed Swearington, Bob Bordeaux and Leo Johnson. All of whom have since passed.

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