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Even Pilots Covet a ‘Blues’ Thrill Ride

Blue Angel crew chiefs Sgt. Kyle Storm, left, and Daniel Pascual, right, assist Laguna Beach's Craig Miller into the ejection seat. Photo by Kathleen Miller

Laguna resident Craig R. Miller spent part of last weekend strapped into a Navy fighter jet, zooming inverted for 60 seconds just 200 feet over California’s Central Valley.

He joined a select company of fewer than 100 people a year privileged to ride with the Navy’s Flight Demonstration Squadron, popularly known as the Blue Angels.

The squadron’s six pilots currently fly the Boeing-made F/A-18 Hornet, wowing crowds by putting the $29 million aircraft through aerial acrobatics at 35 air shows across the nation each year. “The Blues,” as the squadron is known, serve as the premier recruiting weapon of the Navy, celebrating its 100th year of naval aviation in 2011.

“We want to show you what you get: the most professional pilots in the world,” said Lt. John Supple, a

A cockpit camera captures Miller inverted over the Central Valley.

spokesman for the Naval Air Training Command in Corpus Christi, Tex. Navy pilots flying sorties in Afghanistan make the same maneuvers fans see at air shows, he said.

Only people known as “key influencers” and media representatives typically are nominated to fly in a Blue Angels’ squadron, Supple said. “It’s a hard program to get into.”

“My classmate is a vice admiral,” said San Diego’s Read Mecleary, a former Navy DC-9 squadron commander, who described an unsuccessful appeal for a coveted spin with “the Blues.” “They don’t take people on joy rides. Craig has pretty unique credentials.”

Miller, at 57, is not recruitment material. A retired Navy reserve commander who charted 4,000 hours in tactical jets, Miller earned his way into the second seat with his avocation.

“I paint with a camera,” said the 30-year freelance photographer, who mostly focuses the viewfinder of his Nikon D35 on the winged mechanical marvels of his vocation.

The Z Delta Breakout and other scenes from a recent Miramar air show. Photos by Craig Miller

He retired 10 years ago from the Navy Reserves in San Diego and moved to Three Arch Bay to shorten his commuting distance to LAX, where he continues to pilot passenger jets to Hawaii for American Airlines. Now, his sorties involve reconnaissance of a different sort. Like the Impressionist painters who established the art colony, Miller’s intoxicated by Laguna’s landscapes and traverses its coves and hillsides day and night, camera in hand. The results could fill a coffee table book, his friend Mecleary says.

Miller’s resolve to bag a seat with the Blue Angels evolved from a story he produced recently for “Wings of Gold,” a quarterly magazine about aviation technology and developments in the Navy. He traveled to Pensacola, Fla., to shoot “Fat Albert,” the C-130 cargo plane that transports the Blue Angels’ squadron to shows.

“I got a foot in the door,” Miller said. “It was a lucky break.”

For Miller, who flew F-18s off aircraft carriers during his seven years of active duty,  stepping into the cockpit last weekend at Lemoore Naval Air Station was a familiar experience, except for the flight suit. Blues pilots don’t wear g-suits, which inflate to keep pilots from blacking out from oxygen deprivation when planes make gravity defying moves. Instead, in anticipation of a maneuver, pilots tighten their core muscles to keep blood in their brain.

Miller flew with a solo pilot demonstrating high-speed passes while inverted and on edge. “I didn’t pass out,” he said, articulating his worst fear. Two weeks earlier, on the ground at Miramar Naval Air Station, he captured the jets in their hard-to-believe delta formation in mid-air.

His aptitude for “situational awareness” of his surroundings informs Miller’s photography and sets him apart as a pilot, said Mecleary, who describes his former co-pilot as  “a good stick,” the ultimate aviator’s complement. 

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