Citadel graduate takes leadership into the wild blue yonder
As the Blue Angels performance in Charleston habor approaches in celebration of Navy Week, The Citadel is celebrating its connection to the U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron. Blue Angels Cmdr. Greg McWherter is a 1990 graduate.
The performances will take place Saturday and Sunday over Charleston Habor and the Cooper River, beginning at 2 p.m. and lasting for an hour. There will be a practice run today between 3 and 4 p.m. and Friday from 2:30 to 4 p.m.
The following feature on McWherter appeared in the 2009 issue of The Citadel magazine.
Leadership as Usual
“The biggest thing The Citadel does is teach you that there is something more important than you as an individual. Your classmates rely on you; you rely on them. That sense of team applies across the board in everything you do in life.”
Cmdr. Greg McWherter, '90, returned to the South Carolina Lowcountry in May for the annual Beaufort Air Show at the Marine Corps Air Station and took a moment to talk about how The Citadel taught him the value of teamwork and prepared him for his career as a leader and a naval aviator. Now that almost 20 years have passed since his graduation from the military college, McWherter is the commanding officer of the Blue Angels, the U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron.
But the “boss,” as the commander is called, still believes that teamwork is key to success.
“If you had a table full of Blue Angels, you would have a hard time telling who the boss is,” said Lt. Mark Swinger, who holds the No. 4 pilot slot. “There are no one-way conversations. The door is always open. He listens to us.”
Growing up in Atlanta, McWherter always knew that he wanted to be a naval aviator, and The Citadel was a calculated part of his plan to reach that goal.
Scott McMurray, who shared a room with McWherter as a junior, still maintains a close friendship with his former roommate. “His dreams were on the walls of his room at home—posters of F-14s and F/A-18s. Greg came to The Citadel with a mission, and he never lost sight of that.”
Even along the way of his carefully laid-out plan, McWherter, a civil engineering major, exhibited the characteristics of a leader. “People would look to him for the largest things and the smallest,” said McMurray. “Whether it was for help with calculus or naval navigation, he was never too busy to help anyone. Leadership always came naturally to him.”
As a cadet, McWherter took advantage of all that the military college had to offer, playing soccer, achieving Gold Stars for academic success semester after semester, serving as second battalion provost marshal, and absorbing valuable lessons.
“The Citadel teaches you time management. As an 18-year-old, I was stressed for the first time in my life. I was stressed about studying for all my engineering courses, getting my shoes shined and making sure my bed was made. I applied these time management skills in flight school immediately after graduating from The Citadel. I applied them in every fleet school squadron, I applied them as a Top Gun instructor, I applied them as a commanding officer of a fleet squadron. Those lessons that you learn as part of The Citadel experience never change.”
Only an elite group of pilots have a commanding officer’s resume, which includes 3,000 tactical jet flight hours and command of a tactical jet squadron. Selected by the chief of naval air training and a panel of former commanding officers, McWherter is the most recent of only 33 commanding officers in the history of the Blue Angels.
As commander, McWherter is the flight leader of the six demonstration pilots and the three Marine pilots for the C-130 transport plane, nicknamed “Fat Albert,” that carries the Blue Angels’ gear from show to show. In addition to the pilots, the team includes an events coordinator, an administrative officer, a maintenance officer, a flight surgeon, a public affairs officer, a supply officer and a team of enlisted Navy and Marine Corps support and maintenance personnel.
“The Blue Angels team is more than just six pilots. We’ve got 130 sailors and Marines that make this organization run,” said McWherter. “They fuel our jets, they fix our jets, they make sure our seats are safe and our canopies are clean. And the big name on this team is trust. Unlike anywhere else I have been in my life, I don’t even preflight my jet. It is done for me. It is done for me, and I know they are doing it right.”
The Blue Angels’ performance was the star attraction of the two-day Beaufort Air Show that attracted 150,000 spectators. As show-time drew near, McWherter and his staff sequestered themselves in a conference room, where they mentally prepared for the show, or the demonstration as it is called.
“We actually sit here in our chairs and fly the entire show.”
The solemn rehearsal allows the team to eliminate outside distractions and focus on the upcoming performance.
“For literally 20 to 25 minutes, we fly the entire show in our chairs. We close our eyes, and we visualize the whole demonstration. Right hand for stick; left hand for the throttles, communications, speed brake and smoke."
Behind the precision maneuvers spectators see at an air show is a team of focused pilots undergoing a strenuous workout. To prepare for the arduous demonstration schedule, pilots follow a strict weight and cardiovascular exercise regimen.
“We work out six days a week. It’s primarily weight with some cardio mixed in, but not a whole lot of cardio. We don’t want to do anything to lower our blood pressure, which isn’t good for combating G-forces.”
Depending on weather conditions, Blue Angels fly as high as 15,000 feet and as low as 50 feet. The slowest speed they fly in a demonstration is 120 mph, and the fastest is 700 mph, just below the speed of sound. The flight control stick of the Blue Angels’ aircraft, which enables pilots to execute precision movements, is mounted between the pilots’ knees on a spring with 40 pounds of pressure to prevent inadvertent movement. Pilots must be in top physical condition to withstand the strenuous pull of gravity at accelerated speeds, known as G-force, which causes blood to pool to the lower extremities and can cause loss of consciousness, or G-LOC.
Combat pilots in the Navy fleet wear a G-suit, a special garment with air bladders that inflate to create pressure and prevent loss of blood to the head, but Blue Angels do not have that option. Because the inflating and deflating air bladders of the G-suit would interfere with the flight control stick, Blue Angels must anticipate G-forces and control their blood flow through muscle contractions known as the Hick technique. Pilots say the word “hick” every three seconds, closing off their airways and bearing down as they pronounce the K, which increases chest pressure and maintains blood flow to the heart and brain.
Winter training in El Centro, Calif., sets the stage for the year’s grueling schedule.
“We isolate ourselves for two and a half months in the desert, and we fly six days a week, two times a day.”
To master the flight control stick, training begins with a stick that has 10 pounds of pressure, gradually moving to a 40-pound spring.
“We literally have pilots who go through training and can’t straighten their arms out. We have pilots who wake up in the middle of the night with their hands clenched closed. Some sleep with their hands taped to a board so their fingers don’t cramp up at night. You get soreness, you get growths on your hands because it’s so demanding.”
Maintaining optimum health is a must. Because it takes hundreds of hours to train a pilot to fly the demonstration, the Angels do not have a substitute pilot.
“If you’re not working out and you’re not eating right, you will crush the team. If I get sick, the team doesn’t fly. If No. 3 gets sick, the team flies but with an empty spot. Staying healthy and staying in shape is a must.”
Since their first show in 1946, the Blue Angels have performed aerobatic maneuvers for more than 427 million fans. The team performs almost every weekend from March through November. Several days before a show, Fat Albert departs the team’s headquarters in Pensacola, Fla., for the show site, carrying a crew of maintenance and support staff along with all of the equipment needed for a performance. The demonstration pilots each fly their own jet, the Boeing F/A-18, to the show site. A $21 million supersonic jet, the F/A-18 weighs about 24,500 pounds.
As the No. 1 pilot, McWherter leads the diamond formation, flanked by pilots 2 and 3, with the No. 4 pilot bringing up the rear. In perfect formation, the jets are at times a mere 18 inches apart as they execute maneuvers like barrel rolls and formation loops.
In between the diamond passes, the solo pilots, pilots 5 and 6, demonstrate the performance capacity of the F/A-18 with maximum performance turns, rolls and high speed passes. Flying toward one another at a combined speed of 900 miles an hour with great clouds of smoke streaming from their exhausts, they give the illusion that they are about to collide, but in reality they are 100 feet apart. During the last part of the show, the solo pilots join the diamond to perform maneuvers in the delta formation.
The Saturday performance was a success. Afterward, excited fans waved from behind the ropes of the flight line, clamoring for autographs as McWherter and his team greeted the public.
The team had performed flawlessly once again. McWherter breathed a sigh of relief.
“No matter who you are, where you come from or what your situation is in life, Greg has the ability to make you feel that you are the one on stage,” said McMurray. “And he genuinely feels that way. When the young boy who has been waiting an hour to have his photo taken finally gets to meet the commander of the Blue Angels, he feels like Greg has been waiting all day to see him.”
For McWherter, meeting the crowd is not just an obligation, it’s a pleasure. “As much fun as flying a demonstration is, I think the best part of the job is actually meeting the folks afterward. That’s what we are here to do. Ultimately, in 5, 10, 15 years, I’m not going to be able to do this job, but someone that I influence today may be able to do it.”
Indeed, perhaps among the crowd is a future Citadel cadet, a Naval aviator in the making, a Blue Angel even, whose walls are covered in posters of F/A-18's and whose dreams of soaring through a cloudless Carolina blue sky are sparked by McWherter’s team’s performance…. For Cmdr. Greg McWherter, it’s just leadership as usual.
Reprinted from The Citadel magazine.Read more from the 2009 edition of The Citadel magazine.