PENSACOLA, Fla. — The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds landed in the Cradle of Naval Aviation on Monday for a rare joint training with the Navy's Blue Angels.
"I feel like a little kid right now, standing out here with the Thunderbirds flying overhead, watching them park their jets and getting to shake their hands," Navy Cmdr. Ryan Bernacchi, the commander of the Blue Angels, said after welcoming the Nevada-based Thunderbirds to Pensacola.
The eight Air Force F-16 pilots and more than 50 other officers and support staff from the Thunderbirds will join the six F/A-18 Blue Angels pilots and support staff at Naval Air Station Pensacola through Wednesday.
Awesome day with the @BlueAngels! They are incredible professionals and aviators. We shared best practices and learned lots. pic.twitter.com/VuhLJe1Iqz
— Thunderbirds (@AFThunderbirds) April 26, 2017
The U.S. military's two elite fighter jet demonstration teams are seldom in the same place at the same time. Under Department of Defense guidelines, the two teams are not allowed to perform at the same air shows because the military wants to cover as much recruiting territory as possible by using both teams in different locations throughout the year. The two teams haven't been in Pensacola together for more than 15 years.
"I love being here, it is so very cool," said Air Force Maj. Alex Turner, one of the Thunderbird pilots. "You can see how I'm smiling about this."
Even though the two teams do not get to perform together during the season, they have a strong bond, said Air Force Lt. Col. Jason Heard, commander of the Thunderbirds.
"There has always been a lot of respect between the two teams," Heard said. "We have a lot in common and we are looking forward to the week."
The U.S. Navy flight demonstration squadron, the Blue Angels, perform at the 2017 New Orleans Air Show at Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base New Orleans.
Photo Credit: MC2 Edward Guttierrez III/Navy
The joint training came about after Bernacchi and Heard met during a Las Vegas air show conference in December.
"We exchanged some thoughts and ideas and have been in touch since then. As two flight leaders, commanding officers, we communicate back and forth and send texts like 'Hey, great Superbowl,' or whatever," Bernacchi said.
During the training, Bernacchi will fly in the backseat of an F-16 piloted by a Thunderbird and Heard will fly in the backseat of an F/A-18 piloted by a Blue Angel. The two demonstration teams hope to fly together on Wednesday afternoon.
"We will take off together and fly down the coast," Bernacchi said. "If you are out the beach, you will definitely want to see it."
It's an air show exchange program!!! Thanks for coming to see us @AFThunderbirds! pic.twitter.com/M3nVX0KOny
— Blue Angels (@BlueAngels) April 24, 2017
Heard is familiar with the skies above Pensacola. He trained as an Air Force navigator at Naval Air Station Pensacola and lived in Perdido Key for about a year and a half.
"It's like being back home," said Heard, who recalled watching the Blue Angels fly when he was a young officer.
The pilots weren't the only people excited about the unusual joint training. Dozens of Blue Angels support staff members stood outside the Blue Angels hangar, cameras in hand, and waited for the Thunderbirds to land.
From the public affairs office to aircraft maintainers, staff from both teams will share ideas and get to know each other during the three-day joint training.
Blue Angel pilot and Navy Cmdr. Frank Weisser said the entire team was excited about the training.
"Everyone out here is smiling and hope that's the same reaction our fans have," he said.
The Blue Angels will hold a closed practice from 9-10 a.m. Tuesday followed by a public practice by the Thunderbirds at 1:30 p.m., according to a release from the base's National Museum of Naval Aviation.
Bernacchi said the Blue Angels will hold a public practice at 11:30 Wednesday. Both teams hope to fly together at around 3 p.m. Wednesday.