Since 1946, the US Navy’s Blue Angels have thrilled audiences at air shows with tight formations and daring aerobatics. Their blue planes with gold writing have become instantly recognizable, but not all of the airplanes were blue.
After WWII, the US Navy had a surfeit of combat-experienced pilots, and the American people were still reveling in the victory over Japan. To take advantage of both, Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Chester Nimitz formed what was then called the Flight Exhibition Team, and the first show was flown at NAS Jacksonville in 1946 with pilots at the controls of the battle-tested Grumman F6F Hellcat. In those early days, the Blues started the show by flying three Hellcats to demonstrate the formations they employed in battle. Without warning, the group was bounced by a single North American SNJ, the Navy’s version of the T-6 Texan. This adversary aircraft was nicknamed Beetle Bomb after the Spike Jones radio character, and was painted bright yellow and adorned with a Japanese rising sun roundel, or “meatball,” on the side. The numeral zero painted on the tail referred to the Japanese A6M Zero fighter. A fourth Hellcat then joined the fray, and the fighters paired up to demonstrate the Thach Weave combat maneuver and dispatch the “Japanese” interloper, trailing smoke as it went. To complete the illusion, a crew member riding in the back of the SNJ tossed out a dummy pilot in a parachute. The four Hellcats then formed up for the diamond portion of the show, a Blue Angels trademark still represented on the squadron crest.
When the Blues transitioned to the Grumman F8F Bearcat later in 1946, Beetle Bomb transitioned with them. Gone was the rising sun roundel, but the act was still the same, with Beetle Bomb attacking the daring Navy pilots, only to be fought off by superior firepower and piloting skills. With no back seat in the Bearcat, the parachuting dummy was dropped from a centerline pod under the fuselage, and handheld smoke bombs were replaced with a smoke generator in the tail. When the Blues transitioned to their first jets, the Grumman F9F Panther, the slower Beetle Bomb stayed on as a solo aerobatic performer. But the bright yellow Bearcat would be the last propeller-powered Blue Angel, and it was also the tragic last hurrah of Beetle Bomb.
During a practice show at NAS Whiting Field on April 24, 1950, Beetle Bomb was piloted by Lt. Robert Longworth, and his routine called for him to execute a roll after takeoff. For unknown reasons, Longworth didn’t complete the roll and crashed. His death marked the end of Beetle Bomb, and the end of the adversary role in the Blue Angels show. It also marked the last time anything other than a blue Blue Angel would take to the skies.
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