FighterSweep sat down with 3 members of the US Navy’s Super Hornet Demo Team to get their thoughts on putting one of the world’s premier fighters through its full paces.

Have you ever wanted to jump in a fighter jet, takeoff in full afterburner, and then bend it around in front of a crowd? If you have ever been to an airshow and seen a full tactical demonstration from the US Navy TACDEMO team, you know just what we are talking about.

Fighter pilots call it being able to “light your hair on fire”. That means putting the jet through its full (and legal) paces. Being at full throttle with the jet 200 feet off the ground in front of a crowd makes it even more difficult–but really fun. The airshow demo is one experience only a handful of extremely lucky fighter pilots (and WSOs) get to perform.

It’s license to steal and the US Navy’s Super Hornet TACDEMO gets to do it every weekend.

FighterSweep sat down with AJ, Beuller, and Purple to get their thoughts on flying the Super Hornet in an airshow environment.

The US Navy’s TACDEMO teams are comprised of pilots and weapons systems officer (WSOs) from the east and west coast fleet replacement squadrons (VFA-106 and VFA-122). The team performs at airshows throughout the United States and Canada. This year they will hit close to 40 show sites stretching from Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada to Homestead AFB in Florida–and everywhere in between.

Vapes! Courtesy: Bernie Conaway
Vapes! Courtesy: Bernie Conaway

“Some of the best shows are the smaller ones,” said Demo pilot Lieutenant A.J. “Stanza” Turo, a 2007 US Naval Academy graduate. “The airshow is the biggest thing to come through town that year and the organizers are really glad to see us.”

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Hometown shows for the Demo members are also a special opportunity to perform in front of friends and family. Demo WSO Lieutenant Ben “Bueller” Kovesci, a native of Akron, Ohio, and an Ohio State Buckeye grad points to the Cleveland Air Show as one of his favorites.

“It’s a pretty awesome feeling to be bullseye nose low pointed straight at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” said Kovesci.

We kind of have to agree–because fighter jets and Rock and Roll absolutely go together. Right?

The TACDEMO provides the crowd with a full show of the Super Hornets’ awesome capabilities. After a dirty roll on takeoff–which is a pretty darn impressive start–the crew takes the jet through a 20 minute show.

Depending on the cloud layers at the show site, the team can drop down and do a low show. But most of the time they have the full airshow “box” up to 15,000 feet. Some of the more impressive TACDEMO maneuvers include a square loop–which looks exactly as it sounds–and the uncomfortable “tail stand”.

The beginning of the dirty roll on takeoff. Courtesy: Bernie Conaway
The beginning of the dirty roll on takeoff. Courtesy: Bernie Conaway

“The vertical tail stand looks great, but it’s pretty uncomfortable in the jet,” said Stanza. “Coming out of the min radius turn, which is a 6-7G pull, we use coordinated stick and rudder roll to 60 deg nose high. Then -2-3G unload to wings level. ”

Yeah, no kidding it’s uncomfortable. A  negative 2G bunt for an extended period of time would cause most mortals to have huge snot bubbles coming out of their nose. But not these guys (and gals).

Demo Pilot Lieutenant Danielle “Purple” Thiriot, a 2007 Harvard University graduate is believed to be the first female fighter pilot to be selected for the US Navy’s TACDEMO team. Her favorite maneuver is something that shows the Super’s ability to stay slow but still turn on a dime.

“I think the flat pirouette really shows off the jet’s ability to still have great nose authority at slow speeds,” she said.

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That’s a fact. The Super Hornet can pretty much fall out of the sky and still bring its sensor nose to bear. The moral of that story: don’t try to pick a slow speed fight with the Super or you will lose.

She also digs the Low Transition. Raising the gear and keeping the jet 50ft off the runway is challenging and the “ground rush is awesome.”

Purple getting ready to perform. Courtesy: Bernie Conaway
Purple getting ready to perform. Courtesy: Bernie Conaway

Pilot/WSO Team

Teamwork between the pilot and WSO is a key factor in a safe and successful demo. The pilot performs all of the stick and throttle movements while the WSO is cross checking altitudes and airspeeds. On certain maneuvers, the WSO has a countdown with the pilot to make sure the jet stays in a safe flight envelope.

“During the inverted whisper pass, the jet can’t go longer than 10 seconds upside down due to NATOPS limitations. I make a call to the pilot to roll back upright, so we avoid starving the the engines of fuel,” said Beuller. “But the eerie quiet while being inverted in the front of the crowd is great.”

“I’ve also got to stay ahead of the pilot”, he said. “Things move fast up there and you have to be thinking ahead for safety reasons”.

Bueller staying one step ahead of his pilot LT Wallace “Gump” Miller. Photo: Bernie Conaway
Bueller staying one step ahead of his pilot LT Wallace “Gump” Miller. Photo: Bernie Conaway

Naval Aviation

But while there are a ton of cool maneuvers, the real reason the US Navy TACDEMO teams exist is to promote Naval Aviation. Airshows are a great way to showcase the teamwork, camaraderie, and lifestyle of being a part such a unique group.

“We love to show the jet off to the public. It’s a great opportunity for the taxpayer to see how hard our maintenance crews work and what carrier aviation is all about,” said Purple.

Purple also notes that sometimes folks in the crowd look a little stunned when they see a female in the jet. Female fighter pilots have been around for a couple of decades but a lot of the general public does not always realize that.

“It’s a great feeling to see a little girl in the crowd at an airshow. I love talking with them because they realize they could be me someday. It makes their eyes light up.”

Blue Angel Capt. Jeff Kuss Memorial markings. Courtesy Bernie Conaway
Blue Angel Capt. Jeff Kuss Memorial markings. Courtesy Bernie Conaway

One thing to remember is the the Super Hornet TACDEMO team members are not just airshow performers. The team members’ primary mission is to train Fleet Replacement Students for their next squadron. This means a lot of weekdays are spent in “scary” formation hops trying to make sure the new guy can rendezvous properly. And a lot of weekends are spent on the road bringing a top notch show to the taxpayer.

But don’t you agree: if you’ve got to light your hair on fire, there is absolutely no better way to do it than performing a Super Hornet demo in front of an airshow crowd?

TACDEMO SCHEDULE

If you go, make sure you get a spot somewhere near show center. Listening to a Super Hornet point its “cans” at you in burner might make your ears bleed. That’s bad for the ears but good for the soul.

The next 5 TACDEMO shows:

  • August 27th–Joint Base Lewis/McChord, WA
  • September 3rd–Canadian International Airshow, Toronto, CA
  • September 3rd–New York Airshow, New Windsor, NY
  • September 10th–Ft. Wayne Airshow, Ft. Wayne, IN
  • September 10th–NAS Oceana Airshow, Virginia Beach, VA

You can follow the US Navy TACDEMO teams on their Facebook page here and on Twitter here (@USNTACDEMO).

You can see the full US Navy TACDEMO schedule here.

Editor’s note: The VFA-106 Super Hornet and Legacy Hornet aircraft will sport special ‘6’ decals to memorialize Capt Jeff Kuss, who flew as Blue Angel 6.

Special thanks to CNAL Deputy PAO Mike Maus, Bernie “Sheriff” Conaway, and the Spike/Skull team.

Top Photo: Bernie Conaway

This article was originally published on Fighter Sweep and written by Joe Ruzicka