The sneak pass maneuver has been safely performed for decades at air shows around the country, and the El Centro incident is the only known incident of damage.
The US Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron, the Blue Angels modified their routine after an F/A-18 Super Hornet accidentally shook up a few buildings last year at Naval Air Facility El Centro, California, causing $180,000 in damage and injuring a dozen people, Task & Purpose reports.
The Blue Angels’ new Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornets are set to make their Seattle debut in this year’s Seafair air show over Lake Washington. The jets are 25% larger than the legacy Hornets they replaced, and festival promoters are touting them as “Bigger. Louder. Faster.”
The Blue Angels’ stunts and formation flying — with as few as 18 inches between wingtips — have long been a highlight of the festival.
According to The Seattle Times, this year, as in some years past, the Blue Angels have received initial approval to perform the “sneak pass,” a popular maneuver that involves one of the six Super Hornets breaking out of formation and flying as low as 50 feet off the water at close to the speed of sound.
The F/A 18 E/F Super Hornet aircraft can unleash a more powerful sonic air — or pressure — wave compared with its predecessor. This was inadvertently demonstrated on Jan. 21, 2021. During a practice run of the maneuver at the Naval Air Facility El Centro in California when a Blue Angel pilot veered slightly off course, the Rhino (as the Super Hornet is dubbed by its aircrews. The “Rhino” nickname was previously applied to the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, which was retired from the fleet in 1987), which passed within 100 feet of buildings, caused more than $180,000 in damage.
According to a Navy investigative report, the destructive impact, detailed in witness statements, included knocked-down ceiling tiles, cracked windows, fallen shelves, nails pulled out of plywood and dislodged sheathing in two shear walls designed to help a base fire department building withstand earthquakes.
According to the report, the close flyby of base buildings also injured a dozen personnel, who initially suffered ringing in the ears and headaches that then abated.
US Navy investigators said the jets create a “noticeably larger localized sonic airflow signature” than the predecessor Hornets, which increases the “probability and severity of future occurrences” such as the damage sustained at El Centro.
Rear Adm. Robert Westendorff, Chief of Naval Air Training, accepted four safety measures, including a slight reduction in the maximum speed for the low-flying sneak pass and banning the maneuver within 200 feet of any structure, vehicle or personnel to prevent another such incident.
The incident investigation and recommendations were released in response to a federal Freedom of Information Act request from Glen Milner, a Washington peace activist and researcher with the Poulsbo-based Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action.
Milner has protested for years what he calls the militarization of Seafair, and sought to find out more about the Super Hornet aircraft.
“Seafair was saying they would be coming, and would be louder, so I was wondering — how much louder?” Milner said.
The sneak pass maneuver has been safely performed for decades at air shows around the country, and the El Centro incident is the only known incident of damage, US Navy officials said in a written statement.
Navy officials said that the new safety measures will prevent a reoccurrence of the incident.
A final decision on whether to perform the maneuver in Seattle will be made by a commanding officer who will assess the conditions during Seafair before proceeding, officials said.
Developed by McDonnell Douglas, the Super Hornet, which first flew in 1995, is a twin-engine carrier-capable multirole fighter aircraft based on the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet. The F/A-18E single-seat and F/A-18F twin-seat variants are larger and more advanced derivatives of the F/A-18C and D Hornet.
The Hornet and Super Hornet share many characteristics, including avionics, ejection seats, radar, armament, mission computer software, and maintenance/operating procedures. The Super Hornet is largely a new aircraft at about 20% larger, 7,000 lb (3,200 kg) heavier empty weight, and 15,000 lb (6,800 kg) heavier maximum weight than the Legacy Hornet. The Super Hornet carries 33% more internal fuel, increasing mission range by 41% and endurance by 50% over the Legacy Hornet.
As the Super Hornet is significantly heavier than the Legacy Hornet, the catapult and arresting systems must be set differently. To aid safe flight operations and prevent confusion in radio calls, the Super Hornet is informally referred to as the “Rhino” to distinguish it from earlier Hornets.
Furthermore the Super Hornet, unlike the Legacy Hornet, is designed to be equipped with an aerial refueling system (ARS) or “buddy store” for the refueling of other aircraft, filling the tactical airborne tanker role the US Navy had lost with the retirement of the KA-6D Intruder and Lockheed S-3B Viking tankers.
The EA-18G Growler is another variant of the F/A-18 Super Hornet that combines the proven Rhino platform with a sophisticated electronic warfare suite.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy