Humility. Ownership. Standing before a crowd of 200-plus inside MTSU’s Business and Aerospace Building June 7, U.S. Navy Blue Angels slot pilot and U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Jeff Mullins kept emphasizing the importance of those words within the culture of the flight demonstration team.
“Humility and ownership of your own mistakes,” said Mullins, who was joined by Navy mechanic Orlando Navedo and public affairs supervisor Ian Cotter for Friday’s public presentation in advance of the Blue Angels performance in the Great Tennessee Air Show on Saturday and Sunday, June 8-9, in Smyrna.
“What I mean by humility is, when you fly planes … it’s not a very forgiving business,” the Memphis native continued. All Blue Angels flights are filmed, he said, and pilots will indicate — in flight, before thousands of onlookers and colleagues — when they have made a mistake or are out of position by turning off their jet’s smoke trail.
“It’s the humility to own your mistakes on camera … and admitting when you’re out of position so that we can figure out how to get better,” he added. “Without that humility, without that desire to learn and get better, we wouldn’t improve as an organization, and we wouldn’t be as good as we are.”
Wearing the team’s trademark blue flight suit with gold embossing, the pilot of the No. 4 jet shared details about the Blue Angels’ culture of teamwork and answered questions from the audience about the F/A-18 Hornet aircraft they fly and their support operations.
The audience — which included MTSU aerospace students; area high school students; cadets from Civil Air Patrol, the volunteer civilian auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force; local scouts; and members of the public — listened intently as Mullins and Navedo discussed “what teamwork, hard work and dedication can build,” including aerial maneuvers that sometimes put their jets about 18 inches apart.
“The amount of trust that we put into each person on the team, to meet the mission, it’s incredible,” said Navedo, one of the 40 to 50 hand-picked Blue Angels team members who travel each week for the aerial shows. “Looking back, that’s a big part of the reason I wanted to be here. The camaraderie and family that we build while we’re here is unlike any other place.”
MTSU junior Riley Marshall, a transfer student and professional pilot major from Roanoke, Virginia, said he was thrilled to be able to hear from a Blue Angels pilot in person — with a handshake and a photo with Mullins at the end an added bonus.
“I just think it’s a great opportunity, something you don’t get to see a lot, so definitely take advantage of it,” said Marshall, who said he’s had a love of aviation from a young age.
Marshall plans to apply to an Air National Guard unit after graduation and eventually work his way into officer training school and “get my foot in the door any way I can.”
After completing his first semester in MTSU ‘s highly regarded aerospace program and taking summer courses as well, Marshall has been pleased with what he’s seen.
“Everybody’s been super helpful. There’s definitely an environment where people want to help you and encourage you to go further. Everybody’s just really passionate about it,” he said.
Since he plans to pursue military aviation as a career, Marshall said he saw the Blue Angels presentation as a golden opportunity to learn about the mindset required to be a part of such an elite flight team and “what got them so far into their aviation career. It takes a lot of drive to be that skilled of a pilot.”
That’s the point, said MTSU Department of Aerospace Chair Wendy Beckman, who oversees a program of 875 aerospace students with roughly 500 of those in the pro pilot program and others spread among undergraduate programs in aviation management, maintenance management, flight dispatch and Unmanned Aircraft Systems Operations, along with an aeronautical science graduate degree program with concentrations in aviation education, aviation management, and aviation safety and security management.
“It’s very inspirational. Obviously, the Blue Angels have the name in aviation in terms of being … the pinnacle,” said Beckman, whose department regularly hosts Blue Angels presentations on campus when the team performs in Smyrna. “So it’s very inspiring for students to hear about how they got to where they are.”
That includes prospective students like Murfreesboro’s Micaiah Williams, a 16-year-old cadet with the Civil Air Patrol Tennessee Wing 162, who was among a small group of cadets attending the event.
“It’s an honor to have them out and talk (about) the many things they do, how they got there, the humility … It’s very electrifying to come out here and see them,” said Williams, who’s seen the Blue Angels before and plans to be on hand again for the weekend Smyrna show.
Mullins, who spent two semesters at MTSU and was an ROTC student, said the purpose of the Blue Angels is to “inspire a culture of excellence and service to country through our flight demonstrations and community outreach.”
Toward the end of the Q&A session, Mullins was asked how this year’s Blue Angels would honor fallen fellow pilot and Marine Capt. Jeff Kuss, who died June 2, 2016, in a crash while practicing for the show. Mullins knew Kuss and called him “one of the best Marines I’ve ever known.”
“Fly the safest and best show we can for him,” replied Mullins. “But we also represent all the service men and women out there who work the fleet today.”
— Jimmy Hart (firstname.lastname@example.org)