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Blue Angels’ John Foley Recounts the Day He Burnt Through Paint
Wednesday, October 5, 2022


“Stretch out your arm,” John “Gucci” Foley, a former lead solo pilot for the Blue Angels, told a crowd at Ketchum’s American Legion Hall.

“Eighteen inches apart. That’s the amount of distance between we had between our plane and the plane flying next to us,” he added, as he showed a picture on a screen of several Blue Angel F/A-18 Super Hornets flying in formation practically on top of one another. “Can you imagine having a plane besides you at the end of your fingers as you fly 120 miles an hour? You’re pushing one another’s wings you’re so close.”

Foley, a member of Ketchum’s American Legion, spoke at the first fundraiser in the 80-year history of the David Ketchum American Legion Post 115 this past weekend. And he did not disappoint, receiving thunderous applause as he offered behind-the-scenes film clips of his time as a Blue Angel, his job entailing flying a jet up to 700 miles an hour within a wingspan of an approaching jet.

Most military aircraft are not designed to fly upside down—you need an inverted fuel tank to do so, Foley told the crowd. Flying upside down, your eyeballs start to push out of your skull, and it hurts, he added.

Foley decided he wanted to be a Blue Angel at 12, after his dad took him to an air show. Years later, he found himself training Tom Cruise and others for the moving “Top Gun.”

Foley showed a clip of a “Top Gun” camera man’s hair flying as a Blue Angel jet passed within inches of the photographer’s head.

“The thing I find frightening about that is that’s normal. We didn’t do it just for the film crew. That’s how low we would fly,” said Foley, who served as a pilot in the movie.

Foley added that the actors spent six months training to look as if they were doing the flying.

“I just hope the movie gave the average person a little appreciation for what it’s like.”

With Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine in the headlines, Foley showed a clip of the historic visit his team made to Moscow in 1992 as it became the first U.S. flight team to fly over Moscow. One of the pilots from the Russian Knights Aerobatic Flight Team appeared very aggressive, poking him in the chest with his finger as he tried to establish his dominance, saying “You pilot, me pilot.”

With that in mind, Foley treated him to an upside-down flight he would never forget. “Okay, okay, okay,” the pilot mumbled as he regained consciousness.

Everyone gave it their best shot, then they finished it off by going to a bar and toasting one another, Foley said. And, when the group photo was taken, the somewhat belligerent pilot was right next to Foley—in that moment, his best friend.

Foley recounted that his career with the Blue Angels was almost derailed when he accidentally deployed live ordinance from his aircraft on a training exercise. Another time, Foley said, he was asked to test an F-18 that had had repair work by taking it to the limit.

“I was thinking, ‘How high, how fast can I take this jet?” he recalled.

Given the green light, he went full afterburners, going supersonic or faster than the speed of sound. He climbed 58,000 feet into the sky, marveling at the curvature of the earth that he saw. When he realized his engine was about to snuff out, he pointed the nose straight down and came scorching out of the atmosphere at more than a thousand miles an hour.

He had barely climbed out of the cockpit when the maintenance engineer greeted him, shaking his head.

“What did you do?!” he exclaimed.

“I turned around to look at the jet and the paint was gone. I’d melted some of the paint off the jet,” he said.

While Foley admits the adrenaline rush he got as a Blue Angel was pretty special, he said even more important than the flying was the team and its mission.

“We called ourselves ambassadors of good will… The fun part was not the flying but going into the crowd meeting the kids.”

Foley added that chemistry is a big part of landing a position with the Blue Angels.

“Everyone in that cockpit is highly trained, highly committed,” he said. “We’re all going the same way. And we fly lower to the ground, closer to one another, than any other team.”

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