SEYMOUR JOHNSON AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. – After 21 years as a U.S. Navy pilot, his career boasting nearly 900 aircraft carrier landings and air combat during the first Gulf War, tragedy comes as no surprise to Cmdr. Kevin Mannix.
That includes last month's fatal crash of a fellow Blue Angels pilot during a show in South Carolina.
But for Blue Angels pilots, whose demeanor is a key part of the job, the tragedy offers another opportunity to perform the mission they were first given six decades ago: promote the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marines Corps to the world.
"Our ability to bounce back and do our mission is the same as every other squadron in the U.S. Navy or U.S. Marine Corps," said Mannix, minutes after practicing Thursday at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, where the team on Saturday was to perform its first show since the crash April 21.
"The only difference is there's a lot more visibility on us because we are in the public eye," he said. "That's our job and that's what we do. I think a lot more media was focused our way on this specific mishap."
Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Davis, 32, died when his No. 6 jet went down during the final minutes of a performance at the Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in Beaufort, S.C. The Pittsfield, Mass., native was in his first year flying in formation with the team.
An investigation into the cause of the crash, the Blue Angels' first since 1999 and the 26th fatality in the team's 60-year history, could take several months, according to the Navy.
The Blue Angels typically fly their F/A-18A Hornets six days a week, but they stayed on the ground for nine days after the crash, canceling scheduled performances May 5 and May 6 at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska.
Saturday's show was to feature only five jets. Lt. Cmdr. Craig Olson, 37, of Kirkland, Wash., replaced Davis a couple of weeks ago. Olson, who flew with the Blue Angels from 2003-2005, will practice with the team for a few more weeks before flying in a show, Mannix said.
Mannix, the team's lead pilot in the No. 1 jet, said there was anxiety among the pilots before they flew for the first time after the crash.
"We lost a brother, a great friend, a great American, actually," Lt. Cmdr. John Allison, who flies the No. 5 jet, told reporters Thursday after practice. "But we're trying to move forward and think about flying, you know, think about our jobs."
During practice, the team flew in its traditional delta formation, the triangle lineup they were in when Davis crashed. Olson practiced as one of two solo members, hitting mach speeds and performing head-on near misses with Allison.
Each year, the Navy considers up to about 70 pilots for the squadron. The final six pilots train constantly between January and March at El Centro Naval Air Facility, Calif., and are stationed at Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida.
The team is scheduled to fly 66 air shows this year at 35 locations across the country.
The Blue Angels fly without the traditional G-suits, which most jet pilots wear to avoid blacking out during maneuvers that exert strong gravitational forces. The suits inflate and deflate air bladders around the lower body to keep blood in the brain and heart.
The air bladders can cause a pilot to bump the control stick, so the Blue Angels learn to manage the G-forces by tensing their abdominal muscles.
After a fatal crash, team members said, one of the best responses is to get back into the cockpit and grace the skies with twirls, climbs, dives and near misses at around 350 mph and only inches apart.
"It feels good for the team to go back and do it," Mannix said Thursday, "including myself all the way down to the maintainers to do what we do for the American public, to get out there and show them we are resilient in what we do."