WASHINGTON -- The Navy's Blue Angels yesterday ended an unusual suspension of their daredevil demonstration program, caused by the team commander's concerns over his own flying performance and risks to the other pilots.
Cmdr. Donnie Cochran, 41, decided to take his team back into intensive training after he lined up above the wrong runway during a high-speed, low-level maneuver at Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach, Va., on Sept. 23.
The Blue Angels have not performed since, but yesterday after a final training session decided to resume their schedule of seven more performances this year, starting in San Francisco this weekend.
"They practiced twice today and were confident enough in their abilities at the end of the day and over the course of the last week that they had addressed their concerns," said Lt. John TC Kirby, spokesman for the Blue Angels, six fighter pilots who tour the country with their precision flying show.
One of the team's regular performances is over the Naval Academy in Annapolis during Graduation Week in May.
Each Blue Angel maneuver involves a series of procedures that have to be performed in precise sequence and with split-second timing.
At each show the pilots choose local landmarks as "marks" from which to stage their maneuver. In pilot terminology, Commander Cochran has had trouble "hitting his marks."
"He did make some mental mistakes in the show, mistakes which alarmed him and which caused him to terminate the rest of the performance," said Lieutenant Kirby.
At Oceana, one of the heart-stopping maneuvers in front of a crowd of 150,000 required four planes to cross over a single point simultaneously from different directions, using two runways their "marks." Commander Cochran approached the point over the wrong runway.
"The other pilots saw he made that mistake and adjusted to it," said Lieutenant Kirby. "In that particular maneuver was safety impaired? It could have been, but it wasn't necessarily."
A total of 22 Blue Angel pilots have been killed while training or performing since the unit was formed right after World War II. The current Blue Angels team has flown since December, and would normally stay together for two years.
The suspension of their public program is their second this year, an unusual, if not unprecedented, setback for an individual team. They initially canceled a March show in Mesa, Ariz., after performance problems involving a pilot who was replaced.
"There are a couple of things going on here," said retired Vice Adm. Tony Less, who commanded the Blue Angels in the mid-1970s. "The first is the leader is very conservative about safety, and justifiably so in that particular environment. When you are flying that close together and that close to the ground, he needs to be.
"It's peculiar to this team that they are canceling shows for that. Has it happened before? Probably not, but maybe there has been a time or two in the past when it should have happened, but they managed to get through."
Noting that Commander Cochran flew for three years with the Blue Angels in the wing and slot positions before he returned as flight commander last year, he said: "He has proven his mettle, if you will, in that particular environment."
Commander Cochran, who was chosen last year to lead the team, is a veteran of more than 4,600 flight hours in seven different naval aircraft, and has made 888 landings on aircraft carriers.
The Blue Angels, recruited from the best Navy and Marine pilots, operate on a strict order of priorities.
At the top is the safety of the pilots. Next come flight procedures and consistency. Staging a dynamic show for the public is conditioned on the other priorities being satisfactorily met.
"It's very simple," said Lieutenant Kirby. "We saw ourselves in this declining trend, getting to the stage of performing maneuvers that were not necessarily procedurally correct.
"In reviewing Commander Cochran's performance and the trend we have had over the last few months, we came to realize this is a team problem. It is not just a one-man thing."
After Commander Cochran's runway error, the Blue Angels immediately canceled their second show in Oceana.
They also canceled last weekend's performance in Alexandria, La. The rest of their program was in doubt until yesterday's decision by Commander Cochran and the other fliers.