The Navy flight demonstration squadron, the Blue Angels, fly in the Diamond formation in May at the Rhode Island National Guard Open House Air Show. (MC2 Kathryn E. Macdonald/Navy)
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Vice Adm. David Buss, head of Naval Air Forces and Air Forces Pacific Fleet in his Naval Air Station North Island Office. (Joan Pahoyo)
In the wake of a high-profile misconduct investigation of the Blue Angels, the Navy’s top aviator announced sweeping changes to the flight demonstration squadron’s unique structure — changes officials hope will yield a better-run squadron.
The Blue Angels will get an executive officer for the first time in the squadron’s history and the member selection process will be overhauled to include more oversight from personnel officials, Vice Adm. David Buss, the head of Naval Air Forces, ordered as part of changes announced Tuesday.
The Blues’ XO will be a designated aviator, Buss said, but will not fly as part of the team, instead focusing on travel, training and other administrative programs.
“We’re not going to add another plane or position to the flight demonstration,” Buss said in an exclusive phone interview Tuesday with Navy Times. “The XO will oversee the day-to-day management and business of the command, and I think that will be very helpful in strengthening this command triad.”
The controversy that led to these changes burst into public view in April, when a former member of the squadron alleged that former commanding officer Capt. Greg McWherter and members of the team fostered a hostile working environment rife with pornography, lewd behavior and other sexual harassment.
McWherter was fired as the executive officer of Naval Base Coronado, California, in April. A subsequent investigation into McWherter’s 2010-2012 Blue Angels command tour — his second as their skipper — found that pilots flew with pinups of naked women in their cockpits, pornographic images were sent across a group text messaging service used in an official capacity, and McWherter on occasion requested to see naked photos of a junior officer’s girlfriend in the ready room, among other incidents of misbehavior.
The report said authority lines blurred under McWherter. The Blues’ officers are trained to see each other as equals, where junior officers are free to critique the flying of more senior team members, including the CO, all of whom are flying at high speed in tight formations. But under McWherter, this democracy extended to situations well beyond flying, the investigation found, and diminished the CO’s charge to enforce Navy regs.
'Picking the team'
Buss described the changes as “opportunities to update and strengthen” how the squadron operates on a day-to-day basis. He has also updated the selection process for new team members, from the fliers down to the support personnel.
Some close to the team have recommended against installing an XO and against other changes to the selection process. Retired Rear Adm. David Anderson, president of the Blue Angels association said in a June interview that if the unit “were to select officers for the team the way the Navy selects officers for a squadron, it would be very detrimental.”
“The reason I did that is because within naval aviation and across the Navy, we have a very powerful leadership and organizational model in our commands that we call the command triad, made up of the commanding officer, executive officer and command master chief,” he said.
“Rank structure is important, but to be able to have a solid two-way conversation between CO and XO in a peer or near-peer relationship is important for the heath and welfare of the origination,” Buss added.
Buss also overhauled the selection process. The Blues will still get to pick the next generation of team members, but once those selections are made, Buss said new checks and balances will be used to vet those selections.
Buss said the the selection criteria has been carefully rewritten to ensure no one is excluded.
“We’ve really kind of focused on clearly stating in our selection instruction that demographics and gender will not be considered as factors,” he said. “It’s really based on aviation skill, professional performance and community reputation.”
Once the flying and nonflying new members are picked, those selections will first get looked at by the squadron’s immediate boss, the chief of naval air training.
From there, Blues selections will be sent to Navy Personnel Command for a final scrub to ensure there’s nothing in the person’s record to preclude their selection and that a tour with the team won’t be bad for their career progression.
Buss said he’s ready for naysayers to complain that the new process as “the admirals picking the team,” but he said nothing is further from the truth.
“It’s just having an outside set of eyes look at the selections to be sure you are picking the most talented and diverse team possible,” he said.
Cmdr. Tom Frosch, the current Blues skipper, will continue for another year. Buss said AIRFOR could overhaul the CO selection process in the future, and that he reserves the right to have final say on the squadron’s CO.
For now, he said, his main focus is on the 2015 team, and that an announcement of the new members is imminent.