Flying with the Navy Blue Angels and the Air Force Thunderbirds

Veterans Voices

It was the ride of a lifetime, Simpson says.

For WDVM’s Veterans Voices: Heroes Remembered, WDVM Anchor Ross Simpson gives a first person account of “flying with the Blues and the Birds — the Navy Blue Angels and the Air Force Thunderbirds.

HAGERSTOWN, Md. (WDVM) — The military’s two top aerial demonstration teams, the Navy Blue Angels and the Air Force Thunderbirds, have been staging flyovers in major cities, including Washington, D.C. as part of a national salute to first responders, medical personnel and major hospitals who are waging war against COVID-19 that continues to kill thousands of Americans.

During my career in broadcast news, I have been one of the few journalists in the country to have flown with both the “Blues and the Birds.”

Ross Simpson with Ross with Lt. Dave Rottering

The first flight occurred on October 27, 1987 with Lt. Dave Roettering, the public affairs officer for the Blue Angels. I was one of two members of the media in the Nation’s Capital that year to become an Honorary Blue Angel.

I remember climbing into the rear cockpit of a Korean War era fighter plane and taxiing out for takeoff at Andrews Air Force Base.

Blue Angels

The pilot and I weren’t wearing G-suits to keep blood from being forced from our heads into our lower extremities by the force of gravity and blacking out. But we did a lot of “grunting” to prevent that from happening. The flight lasted almost an hour. While flying over the Chesapeake Bay, we came screaming out of the sun and buzzed some duck hunters in a blind along the bay. I can still see the started looks on their faces as we zoomed by, but the ride of a lifetime occurred almost years later at Warner-Robbins Air Force Base in Georgia when I flew with the Air Force Thunderbirds.

This time, the aircraft was an F-16D model Flying Falcon, a sleek needle-nosed aircraft. The pilot of Thunderbird-8 was Major Jim Hardin, who later flew combat missions in the Gulf War.

Ross Simpson and Major Jim Hardin.

The flight was part of my opening coverage on the NBC Radio Network for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

After striking the signature “Thunderbird Pose” with the pilot, I climbed the ladder on the left side of the aircraft and posed for a “Hero” shot. The ground crew had stenciled my name on the lid of the canopy.

Ross Simpson

The F-16D was equipped with a dash cam, so every moment of the hour-long flight in a MOA, a military operating area, was captured on video tape.

I could also hear communications between the control tower at Warner-Robbins and Major Hardin who was sitting just in front of me as we turned onto the runway.

I remember telling Hardin to “light the fuse” as he shoved the throttle forward and Thunderbird-8 lunged forward.

We stayed only four feet off the runway as we picked up speed, and then went ballistic.

Ross Simpson flying

“We’re going straight up,” said Hardin as he told to look over my right shoulder and watch the runway get “smaller and smaller” below us.

In the F-16 Fighting Falcon, pilots and their passenger in the D-Model recline slightly in their ejection seats so that their helmets don’t hit the top of the glass cockpit canopy and allow for a sleeker shape to the aircraft and better airflow, unlike Blue Angels pilots who sit upright in F/A 18 Hornets.

After climbing to 37,000 feet and rolling inverted so I could look down and see the countryside around Warner-Robbins, Hardin leveled off the aircraft, lifted his hand off the stick and said, “Take it, show me what you can do.”

I started easy with a four-point roll. “Nice,” said Hardin, “Do you have any other maneuvers you can do.”

“Yeah,” I replied as I pulled back on the stick, turned on the smoke, and performed an over-the-top roll; coming down the backside and cutting the smoke ring with the nose of the aircraft.”

Ross Simpson in rear cockpit

That really impressed Hardin who asked where I learned to fly like that. “I read a book on aerobatics before coming down here,” I replied. “No way,” snapped Hardin who reminded me that it takes years to teach fighter pilots these maneuvers. I laughed and said, “I must be a fast-learner.”

The rest of the time was spent punching holes in clouds. One in particular was a giant thunderhead that came boiling up to our altitude. Checking to make sure the other side was clear of any aircraft that might have strayed into the military operation area, I added a few degrees of climb on the aircraft and gave Thunderbird-8 a bath.

Shortly after getting my flight certificate as an Honorary Thunderbird, the Air Force banned civilians like me from actually flying any of their aircraft, including one of its Thunderbirds.

Thunderbirds flight certificate

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