SAN FRANCISCO -- Blue Angels pilot Lt. Cmdr. C.J. Simonsen routinely soars through the sky at breakneck speeds while performing death-defying corkscrews, loops and near-miss passes in a distinctive blue and gold Navy F/A-18 fighter jet. Yet, the soft-spoken Minnesota native says he doesn't consider himself a daredevil or thrill seeker.
"I've never sky-dived," the 36-year-old lead solo pilot said, before taking off for Thursday's practice flight over Alcatraz and the Municipal Pier. "And I don't ride motorcycles."
Sure, he admits the nearly supersonic flights are thrilling and exhilarating. But he said that's not what he loves most about his once-in-a-lifetime stint in the elite air squadron, which lasts three years. Instead, he treasures the time spent talking to students across the country.
"It's the best job in the world," he said. "The flying is unbelievable, but the best part is getting to talk to those kids every Friday and get them excited about what opportunities there are out there. It's a humbling honor for me to be able to do that."
Even if teens aren't interested in the military, the Blue Angels present themselves as role models in other ways, Simonsen said.
"If we can get kids excited about staying in school, making the right decisions, staying off drugs and making this country a better country, that's what it's all about," he said.
He is especially excited to be back flying over San Francisco, which he said has unbeatable views.
"This is by far one of my favorite cities to come to," he said. "This will be my fourth year here now in a row, and I absolutely love it. Last year was the first time I got to fly over the city, and what a backdrop. If you can find a better backdrop ... I challenge you to do that."
One might wonder how the pilots have time to enjoy the views, whizzing by at 600-plus mph.
The flying, he said, takes a lot of mental and physical strength to withstand gravitational forces that could make an untrained pilot pass out.
Interview with Blue Angels Lead Solo Pilot Lt. Commander C.J. Simonsen
"The physical forces that you're feeling are just like you would feel in combat," he said. "We are pulling on the stick, feeling Gs. And what you've got to do to stay awake is basically squeeze all your muscles from your abs down to your toes. ... You've got to really be working hard the whole time you're flying in order to keep that blood in your head so you don't go to sleep."
In one of their more heart-stopping stunts, Simonsen and the opposing solo pilot fly directly at each other, narrowly missing at the last second as they perform a low pass over the bay. While the solo pilots provide the extra stunts that demonstrate the full capabilities of the jets, the main four-jet diamond squadron also shows off dramatic precision formations and maneuvers that elicit gasps and shrieks from the crowds below.
Women have not yet reached the level of pilot in the Blue Angels, but they do represent about 10 percent of the management and support team, Simonsen said. Aviation Ordinance Second Class Petty Officer Breanna Gorski, 24, said she works on maintaining the jets, painting and decorating the aircraft with stickers that look like giant decals. She also loads ammunition on other Navy fighters.
Like Simonsen, she said she loves visiting classrooms, where students -- especially girls -- are often excited to learn about how they could one day become a Blue Angel.
The Blue Angels share Fleet Week airshow time with other expert aviators, including the Air Force F-22 Raptor. Air Force Master Sgt. Bo Brewer, 40, said his team also enjoys speaking to people in the community about what they do, as much as they enjoy the rest of their jobs.
Interview with Air Force Master Sergeant Bo Brewer
"We've been invited to show off a bit of the F-22 capability in front of the San Francisco area," he said. "And we're just happy to be able to come here for the Air Force and to partake in the Fleet Week for the Navy."
The Blue Angels plan to fly over San Francisco from 3 to 4 p.m. Friday-Sunday
The Air Force F-22 expects to fly over the city about 1 p.m. each day
More information about the Blue Angels is available by visiting blueangels.navy.mil.
For additional details about Lt. Cmdr. C.J. Simonsen, including a link to a video interview, read the On Assignment blog at www.ibabuzz.com/onassignment.