When news broke that Capt. Gregory McWherter’s high-flying career had essentially ended, support came flooding in from thousands of sailors and civilians who said he’d put the Blue Angels flight team back together after a spate of safety issues.
While his support remains strong in some quarters, the release of the Navy’s investigation into the Blue Angels under McWherter paints a picture of aviation culture lapsing into demeaning behavior from a bygone era, where porn, lewd comments and raunchy pranks are condoned — even celebrated — as “boys being boys.”
Those days are gone. In the wake of the report, many sympathetic to McWherter after his April 18 firing from his post-Blue Angels job as executive officer at Naval Base Coronado, California, were shocked that a commanding officer reportedly allowed his team to act with abandon, saying this behavior has been off limits for a long time, according to interviews with former squadron commanders.
“As a former Blue Angel, as a former admiral in the Navy, I still am having trouble getting my mind wrapped around how quickly this came about in the squadron,” retired Rear Adm. David Anderson told Navy Times in a June 11 phone interview.
Anderson and other experts believe the unique give-and-take of the Blue Angels — where a CO is both the final authority and a wingman whose flying is critiqued by junior officers — may have fostered the “toxic” culture under McWherter, whose eagerness to repair his team after returning in 2011 for his second command stint created new problems.
“And also, how it got into this mentality of a juvenile one-upmanship, to see who can shock the most,” added Anderson, the current president of the Blue Angels Association. “That’s not the Navy I know. That’s not the Navy I served in. That’s not the Blue Angels I know.”
Aviation leaders are reviewing the Blue Angel’s command structure, in light of the report that found blatant disregard for regulations.
“The totally inappropriate command environment fostered by Capt. McWherter was so unacceptable that it should have been clear to each member of the team that standards of personal dignity and respect were violated,” Vice Adm. David Buss, the head of Naval Air Forces, said in a June 3 statement.
Inside the Blues
The Blue Angels are a far cry from a typical squadron: It’s a more democratic atmosphere, lacks an executive officer and boasts a selection process more akin to joining SEAL Team 6 than your average ready room, Anderson said.
“One of the hardest jobs is to go in as a commanding officer of the Blue Angels and really understand, this is a weird group,” said Anderson, a retired F/A-18 pilot who flew with the Blue Angels in the 1980s. “They vote on members to come in. How am I supposed to come in as the commanding officer, and have some junior officer at the table critique my flying? It’s a very unusual relationship.”
On the other hand, Anderson said, it’s up to an experienced CO to know when to treat his junior officers as equally capable pilots and when to be their boss.
“He has to learn very quickly when he is one of the pilots sitting around the table talking about safety of flight, and when he is the commanding officer of the squadron,” he said. “That includes command climate, morale of the troops, meeting basic standards.”
Anderson said he has spoken with senior Navy leadership as they look at steps to tweak the Blue Angels structure to prevent future command climate issues.
But making the team more like the rest of the fleet isn’t the answer, he said.
“If we were to select officers for the team the way the Navy selects officers for a squadron, it would be very detrimental,” he said.
For instance, if the squadron were to get an XO, a position typically responsible for ensuring regulations are followed and standards met, he argued the selection process should be similar to the way the team already chooses pilots, through a campaigning process and a vote by existing members.