While the U.S. Navy’s famed Blue Angels are celebrated as one of the world’s leading jet demonstration teams, its maneuvers have been adapted throughout its long history, reflecting changing aircraft equipment, safety procedures, audience tastes, and other factors. One standout maneuver that’s no longer in the Blue Angels’ repertoire is the remarkable diamond-six, or delta landing, in which all six of the team’s A-4F Skyhawks touched down on the runway almost simultaneously to bring their display to a dramatic conclusion.
In the following video, recently posted to the Blue Angel Phantoms YouTube channel, which charts the history of the U.S. Navy demonstration team, a former Blue Angels commanding officer (1986–88), Gil Rud, provides his unique insight on the seemingly dangerous maneuver.
“In the A-4, on a 200-foot-wide runway, we can land all six airplanes together,” Rud explains. “So the back row, the three guys in the back, land first, and then two and three land, and then I land."
"What’s so crazy about this is they touch down and they all go ‘back row down, boss,’ ‘two-three down, boss.’ At that point, I do two things that you never want to do in a jet fighter. I suck the power to idle, I dump the nose, I touch down, and tap the brakes at 150 knots. All of those things are not really good things to do unless you practice, practice, practice.”
Of course, the Blue Angels were and still are all about embodying the highest levels of teamwork, professionalism, and precision, such that, provided the runway was wide enough, landing a gaggle of six A-4s was totally feasible. In fact, many displays during the Blue Angels’ Skyhawk period ended this way.
There were some built-in safety measures just in case anything did go wrong with the highly complex delta landing, as Rud continues: “We had a [brake] chute on the A-4 to stop if we needed to. So if somebody blew a tire, like say I blew a tire doing this I’d go ‘boss needs a chute,’ the back row [deploys its] chutes, two and three [deploy] chutes, and then I can pull my chute. That never happened. But it was in the back of my mind all the time.”
Interestingly, the most widely available video of the delta landing, which also appears in the Gil Rud interview, consists of aerial footage that famously appeared in the music video to Van Halen’s Dreams, released in 1986 and seen in full below.
Of course, the exceptionally compact nature of the A-4 made it a very suitable platform for the delta landing. Indeed, the Blue Angels had selected the Skyhawk to replace its previous F-4 Phantom IIs in part due to its much small size, resulting in reduced operating costs in terms of fuel and manpower, which were especially critical during the fuel crisis of the 1970s. Even more importantly, the A-4 — which the team introduced in 1974 — was also judged to be safer for aerobatics and formation work than the big and fast Phantom, eight of which the Blue Angels had lost in the previous two years.
A Blue Angels Association event, with pilots discussing the transition from F-4 to A-4 that took place in the mid-1970s:
What’s more, once McDonnell Douglas had adapted the service-standard A-4F for use by the Blue Angels, the aircraft was even more forgiving from a handling perspective. Changes included generating additional nose-down force as part of a more stable flight control system, as well as disabling the leading-edge slats on the wings, to ensure more predictable flight characteristics. As well as the aforementioned drag chute, the cannons and fuselage-spine avionics ‘hump’ were also deleted, bringing down weight and making the jet more maneuverable.
The Skyhawk remained the mount of the Blue Angels until 1986 when it was replaced by what was at that time another McDonnell Douglas product — the F/A-18A/B Hornet. At the time, Gil Rud was still at the helm as the Blue Angels’ boss. While the Hornet (and today’s Super Hornet) are still flown as a six-ship, the larger dimensions and much heavier weights of these jets mean that landing them in formation is no longer a realistic proposition. Furthermore, a lack of brake chutes compounds potential safety issues. The risk of something going wrong is simply too great; after all, it would require only one aircraft to decelerate too quickly or veer off its line to lead to a disaster.
A Blue Angels display during their first airshow season with the Super Hornet, in 2021:
Having said that, multi-ship formation landings did not disappear with the retirement of the Blue Angels Skyhawks. In Europe, where demonstration teams typically fly more lightweight jets, primarily trainers, these show-stopping maneuvers have continued to be performed. The best-known exponents of multi-ship landings in Europe are the Italian Air Force’s Frecce Tricolori, which has landed its MB-339s in the past in a nine-ship formation, and the Spanish Air Force’s Patrulla Aguila, flying seven C-101 Aviojets.
Formation landing by the Italian Air Force’s Frecce Tricolori:
Formation landings by the Spanish Air Force’s Patrulla Aguila:
On the topic of demonstration teams with different approaches to landing, it’s also worth recalling one of the U.K. Royal Navy’s short-lived Supermarine Scimitar teams, which concluded at least some of its displays with two pairs of jets landing together — from opposite ends of the runway. It’s hard to imagine the team clearing such a maneuver with the safety advisory board in the 1960s, let alone today.
U.K. Royal Navy Supermarine Scimitars land from opposite ends of the runway at the Farnborough Airshow in England, in 1961:
Today’s Blue Angels continue to please crowds across North America and further afield. Tight formation work remains a Blue Angels trademark, but the next time you are wowed by one of their delta formations, you might want to remember the days when the team’s pilots finished up their displays in diamond six, putting the wheels of their A-4s back onto the tarmac in near-simultaneous fashion, all just feet apart.
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