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Blue Angels team checks Palmer Airport to plan this summer's air show

Brian F. Henry | Tribune-Review
Lt. Ryan Chamberlain (left) of the U.S. Navy Blue Angels demonstration team gives a wave as he and Lt. Cmdr. Michael Cheng arrive in a Boeing F/A-18 Hornet at the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Unity on Wednesday.

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Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

A rumbling fighter jet pierced the clouds in Unity Wednesday before circling back and touching down at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport.

The Blue Angels are in town.

One of the unmistakable F/A-18 Hornets landed at the airport Wednesday so that two members of the team could meet with airport officials to discuss the Navy demonstration team's participation in the 2014 Westmoreland County Air Show, June 7-8.

Lt. Ryan Chamberlain, who narrates the performances, said each of the 34 locations chosen for this summer's schedule will get a similar winter visit to review particulars of each place.

“You've got over-the-water shows; you've got over-land shows. This show obviously has a bit of terrain features (unlike) Kingsville, Texas — it's very flat,” said Chamberlain, a Bloomington, Ill., native and member of the team since September 2012. “There's a lot that goes into it, and that's why we have such extensive planning before each show.”

The team last performed in Westmoreland County in 2012 before about 75,000 people over the two-day event. Each year, the team performs for about 11 million people total after 120 winter training flights.

Gabe Monzo, executive director of the Westmoreland County Airport Authority, said this year's Blue Angels performance is the only show in Pennsylvania with a military jet team.

“We're very proud to have the Blue Angels,” he said. “There's a large team of individuals here who put their heads together to prepare for them.”

Chamberlain and Lt. Cmdr. Michael Cheng, events coordinator, flew the 680 nautical miles from Duluth, Minn., on Wednesday in about 80 minutes and will return Thursday to Pensacola, Fla., where the team is based.

Four pilots that flew over Westmoreland County in 2012 will return this summer, said Cheng, of San Francisco, who has been a Blue Angel since September 2012.

The team must build trust as its pilots spend more than 300 days of the year together, planning, traveling and executing maneuvers that come as close as 18 inches, Cheng said.

Pilots are all trained active-duty Navy or Marine Corps tactical jet pilots who volunteer for the three-year stints on the team.

“The biggest challenge is the trust factor, and we eliminate that early on just through the application process,” Cheng said. “Everybody in the fleet is pretty much trained to do the maneuvers that we do, the difference is we do them 18 inches apart and significantly faster and lower.”

The 45-minute air show demonstration and 10-minute ground demonstration is designed to show the capabilities of the planes and service members.

“We get to bring the Navy and Marine Corps to towns across America that don't have that presence all the time,” Chamberlain said. “We can't bring an aircraft carrier here, but we can bring the next best thing, in my opinion, and that's the Blue Angels.”

Cheng said meetings like these provide visitors the best experience when turning their eyes skyward.

“It doesn't matter if we come to a site every year or come to Latrobe every other year,” he said. “The people of Latrobe, I'm sure they appreciate a very safe and fun demo.”

In addition to planning this summer's show, Cheng said he's looking forward to meeting the man whose name graces the airport where they will perform.

“For my personal benefit, being a golfer, I'm a huge fan of Arnold, so the opportunity to get a chance to meet him now, it's kind of cool for me,” he said.

Stacey Federoff is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6660 or

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