Come Fly With Me

Come Fly With Me Meet Lt. Cmdr. James Tomaszeski, a true Blue Angel By Zandra Wolfgram

He wanted to find adventure. Like many kids after watching the movie “Top Gun,” he dreamed of landing a sleek jet on an aircraft carrier just like Tom Cruise’s character, Maverick. It seemed “dangerous and exciting” and this Orange Park, Fla., boy loved the idea of that. After graduating from Florida State University in 2000, he reported to the Naval Air Station in Pensacola for officer candidate school. Now 32, he’s a decorated officer in the United States Navy marking his 11th year of service. After making 271 carrier-assisted landings, is the Navy still as adventurous and exciting as this “adrenaline junkie” thought it would be? You bet.

 Lt. Comdr. James Tomaszeski

Meet Lt. Cmdr. James “Zesty” Tomaszeski: a proud husband, father of a 23-month-old, modest naval officer and “right wing” of the Blue Angels squadron, flying “Gertrude” as part of the Navy’s elite flight demonstration team, based right here on the Emerald Coast in Pensacola.

The Blue Angels first performed in 1946 and are currently the oldest formal flying aerobatic team. The squadron’s six demonstration pilots fly the F/A-18 Hornet in more than 70 shows at 34 locations throughout the United States each year and still employ many of the same practices and techniques used in their 1946 aerial displays. Since their inception, the “Blues” have flown a variety of different aircraft types for more than 427 million spectators worldwide.

We spoke with Tomaszeski while he was in Rhode Island, between air shows, on a Monday — his day off. When the airshow comes to Pensacola Nov. 11–12, it marks Tomaszeski’s final demonstration. After two years as a No. 2 Diamond, he will pass on his Blue Angel parking spot to another pilot and take a new assignment on an aircraft carrier.

 Lt. Cmdr. James "Zesty" Tomaszeski flies an F-16 named "Gertrude," whom he calls a classy old lady. Photo courtesy Cmdr. James "Zesty" Tomaszeski flies an F-16 named "Gertrude," whom he calls a classy old lady. Photo courtesy














EC: What has being a Blue Angel meant to you?  The whole Blue Angels experience means you’re joining something bigger than yourself. It’s been around for 65 years, so it’s never been about one person. They have a saying: “Once a Blue Angel always a BA,” because you could be called back into service, so you’ll never be far from the team.

EC: What does it take to be a Blue Angel?  It takes the right amount of humility, motivation and, honestly, skill to get the job done. The key to being a successful Blue Angel is built around teamwork.

EC: What is the selection process like?   We get to hand pick our squadron. To try out you have to be a qualified individual. For a pilot, it requires 1,250 flight hours, which equates to eight or nine years of flying. We typically have 50 applications for three F-18 spots. Candidates create a resume package; it’s reviewed, and then you come to two to three air shows out of your own pocket and spend time with the team. There are no fly tryouts. It’s all based on fleet reputation. We’re trying to find the best fit for our team. We are not looking for a show boater; we’re looking for career-oriented officers.

EC: How do the Blue Angels help with recruitment efforts? The Blue Angels personifies working together and being a team and a greater purpose. We try to demonstrate the pride and professionalism our service men and women use on a daily basis. The Blue Angels are just six pilots, but there are 130 team members that make this squadron run. It’s just a small example of everything going on across the globe, and all of it is based on teamwork.

EC: How long did you spend in training?  We’ll have 120 training flights in California – two to three times a day, six times a week for about two-and-a-half months. We start with the basics: turning the smoke on and off simultaneously. Then get into loops and rolls and build up to an airshow.

EC: Give us an insider tip to enjoy the Blue Angels air show to the fullest.  I jump right into that jet and start it up, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t a dozen people just to make that happen … . We hope you appreciate the focused, challenging flying. If it looks easy, we’re doing our job well.

EC: Describe what it’s like in that cockpit.  You wear a lot of gear. You strap yourself in tight to an ejection seat. We wear flight suits instead of G-suits, not for looks but because the F/A-18 is such an advanced piece of equipment it’s easier to fly without them. We actually “dummy down” the airplane to manually control the 40-pound spring in the flight stick. To operate it, we brace our arm against our thigh. During the 45-minute demonstration, you feel everything the aircraft is doing. In the end, there is sweat rolling off our backs.

EC: How do you prepare for such intense flying?  We spend six days a week in the gym. We focus a lot on core strength and maintaining a healthy diet. 

EC: What is the most difficult maneuver?  The most challenging for everyone to do at the same exact moment is the Loop-Break-Cross. We break into separate directions for about three miles; and then loop, roll and meet back at the center of the stage at the same time. You have to calculate and make adjustments to a millisecond. If we nail that, that is the epitome of what we try to demonstrate — that precision, max performance and teamwork all coming together.

EC: How do you feel about “retiring” your Blue Angel wings?  It’s a rare opportunity to do things you wouldn’t otherwise get a chance to do. Hopefully you use that time to reach out and interact with folks who want to join the military and get involved in the community. It’s really a great experience, but I didn’t join the Navy to be a Blue Angel. I joined to fly on aircraft carriers. I will carry this experience with me the rest of my life, but really I am ready to get back to flying gray airplanes.

EC: This is a prestigious, high profile achievement for a pilot. How will you top this?  The Blue Angels is a part of my life that is always going to be something easily recognized, but I’d like to go on with a great Navy career that is just as fulfilling. I joined the Navy to serve my country. I’ve loved being a Blue Angel, but I hope it doesn’t define me I hope the qualities we look for and that I possess is what defines who I am throughout my career.

EC: 2011 marks the 100th anniversary of Naval Aviation. As a proud naval officer, what should we know?  The space program is paramount to me. The first man on the moon was a naval aviator, and when the capsule re-orbited it was picked up by a Navy helicopter, which landed on a Navy ship.

Did you know?

» The original team adopted the nickname Blue Angels in 1946, when one of them came across the name of New York City’s Blue Angel nightclub.

» Blue Angels are both officers and enlisted from the ranks of Navy and United States Marine Corps (USMC) units.

» The demonstration pilots and narrator are made up of Navy and USMC Naval Aviators.

» To date, there have been 242 demonstration pilots, and 34 flight leaders/commanding officers.

» The Blue Angels currently have 10 jets: two single seat F/A-18 A models, five single seat F/A-18 C models, one 2-seat F/A-18 B and two 2-seat F/A-18 D models.

» During the airshow, the F/A-18s reach speeds of 700 m.p.h. (just under Mach 1). They fly up to 15,000 feet and as low as 50 feet.

» During the Diamond 360 maneuver the jets are just 18 inches apart.

» F/A-18s are official fighter aircraft and can be “combat ready” in 72 hours.

Centennial (1911-2011) of Naval Aviation History Highlights

Jan. 18, 1911 — Civilian pilot Eugene Ely becomes the first person to ever land an aircraft on board a ship, flying a Curtiss pusher onto a makeshift wooden platform constructed on the armored cruiser Pennsylvania in San Francisco Bay.

Jan. 26, 1911 ­­­­— Glenn H. Curtiss makes the first successful hydroaeroplane flight in San Diego, demonstrating the application of airplanes for naval purposes.

May 8, 1911 — Capt. Washington Irving Chambers prepares contract specifications for the Navy’s first aircraft. This date is later designated the birthday of U.S. Naval Aviation.

Sept. 24, 1918 — Lt. j.g. David S. Ingalls shoots down his fifth enemy aircraft over the Western Front, becoming U.S. Naval Aviation’s first fighter ace.

May 27, 1919 — The NC-4 flying boat lands in Lisbon Harbor, Portugal, completing the first transatlantic crossing by air.

March 20, 1922 — The U.S. Navy commissions its first aircraft carrier, Langley.

May 7-8, 1942 — U.S. Navy and Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft carriers square off in the Battle of the Coral Sea, the first naval engagement in which ships of the opposing forces are not within sight of one another.

July 16, 1957 — Maj. John Glenn, USMC, broke the transcontinental speed record in an F8U-1P Crusader at an average speed of 723.517 miles per hour. This was the first upper atmosphere, supersonic flight from the West to the East coast.

Feb. 20, 1962 — Lt. Col. John H. Glenn Jr., USMC, becomes the first American to orbit the earth.

June 17, 1965 — Flying F-4B Phantoms, Cmdr. Louis C. Page and Lt. Jack E. D. Batson, intercept four MiG-17s and each shoot down one, scoring the first U.S. victories over MiGs in Vietnam.

July 21, 1969 — Astronaut Neil Armstrong, a former naval aviator, becomes the first human to set foot on the surface of the moon.

Feb. 22, 1974 — Lt. j.g. Barbara Ann Allen becomes the first woman to be designated a naval aviator.