The U.S. Navy Blue Angels flight demonstration squadron may be the most recognizable group of performing aviators in the world.
Flying at up to 60 air shows in 30 locations throughout North America each year, the F-18 pilots who constitute this unit are selected from among the best of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.
Milwaukee-based podcaster Dusty Weis got to know Stangel — and experienced the grueling physical punishment — of flying with the Blue Angels.
We’re cruising along over the Gulf of Mexico at about 500 miles an hour in an F-18 Super Hornet fighter jet. And in the pilot’s seat in front of me, Lt. Commander Griffin Stangel wants to talk… football.
“Dusty, are you a Packers fan?” asked Stangel.
“Oh my god, yes,” I respond.
“Okay cool. My wife’s a Vikings fan, so we had a rough weekend, but we’re working through it obviously,” Stangel chuckles.
Proof that you can take the boy out of Wisconsin — make him an elite naval aviator and give him the assignment this year of Blue Angel #6 — but you can’t take the Wisconsin out of the boy.
“I grew up in Madison, I went to Madison West,” said Stangel. “I am just a person who decided one day that I am going to follow my passion, to try to be the best pilot I can be.”
Stangel’s journey began 15 years ago. Inspired by a class he took with Madison pilot and mentor Diane Endres Ballweg, he studied aviation at the University of North Dakota, and then joined the U.S. Navy.
In flight school, he was drawn to the raw power and majesty of flying F-18 fighter jets launched off of carriers at sea.
“It’s awesome. You can be having the worst day, and as soon as you get shot off the front end, it changes your outlook and you’re just flying, you know?” said Stangel.
But flying F-18s is one of the most sought-after roles in the Navy.
Stangel says the training and competition were intense. But, a decade later, his drive and determination have now earned him a coveted assignment as one of only 260 Blue Angels pilots in history.
I wanted to understand just how demanding his job is. That’s how I found myself strapped snugly into the F-18 passenger seat behind Stangel at Blue Angels headquarters in Pensacola, Florida.
Liftoff was like a rocket launch. For about an hour, Stangel subjected me to maneuvers with names like the Split S and the Half Cuban Eight.
But the real eye-openers are the high-G turns, where you experience six or seven times the normal force of gravity. If you don’t flex every muscle in your legs and core and breathe just right, the inertia can pull all the blood from your brain and cause you to black out.
And then he brought on the Gs — 6G to be exact. The Gs don’t come on gradually. It feels like I’m being hit by a thousand pounds of sandbags all at once. It was intense.
“I started graying out a little bit, but do you get gray during that, or you as cool as a cucumber?” I asked Stangel inside the F-18.
“We’re pretty accustomed to pulling these Gs all the time,” he responded from the cockpit.
It’s all I can do just to keep it together, but it’s clear that Lt. Commander Griffin Stangel is undeniably in his element here.
“I remember the first time I took off in an F-18. It’s a pretty wild sensation,” he said.
Stangel added that he gives it his all every day and doesn’t take the position as a Blue Angel for granted.
“It’s a privilege to be working with such incredible people, who are so dedicated to giving their all every day,” said Stangel. “Being able to say I’m a part of the Blue Angel Team is just a true blessing.”
For 60 precious minutes, I had the opportunity to experience exactly what Stangel is talking about. Sure, I end up drenched in sweat and panting for breath, but Stangel’s ability to perform under those conditions with a chuckle and a grin leaves me with a profound respect for the incredible drive and athleticism that it takes to fly the F-18.
And he says being able to showcase that singular talent for the first time over his home state of Wisconsin during the 2023 Milwaukee Air & Water Show is a special experience.
“It’s a real treat, flying over a city that was a big part of my childhood,” said Stangel. “Coming home and seeing the places that I went to growing up — it means a lot, right? You never forget where you come from.”
A return to his roots… for a proud Wisconsinite who earned his wings.
MUSIC: “Mighty Wings” by Cheap Trick