Blue Angels bring winter thrill to California town

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34142 full

Fifteen miles from the border of Mexico, the city of El Centro in California's Imperial Valley has something most hard luck small towns don't: the Blue Angels.

For 45 years, it has been the winter training home of the Navy's flight demonstration squadron. The "Blues," as the locals call them, have been an enduring source of pride for the desert community.

The "hay bales" is a dusty crop field a stone's throw from the runways of El Centro's Naval Air Facility. Lisa Gallinat has been watching the Blue Angels from here ever since she was a kid.

"Now they're going to clear the field," Gallinat says. "They'll make sure there isn't any other crop dusters or any other planes in the air."

It's early morning and a dozen or so people are perched alongside the irrigation ditches. The Blue Angels' training schedule is like a daily weather report here. The town's alarm clock is the sound of F/A-18 Hornets firing up their engines.

"Jets one, two, three and four will take off in their diamond," Gallinat explains.

Twelve-year-old Josh Barnes' neck is craned upward, his hands deep in the pockets of his hoodie. He's been coming here since he was three, he says — he knows all the maneuvers.

"Let's see here, loop, break, cross," Barnes says, identifying the planes' moves. "It's really thrilling and exciting to see them fly."

That's what Brad Luckey thought when he was Josh's age. Today at his home, the 57-year-old farmer is surrounded by Blue Angels memorabilia — model planes, photos, decades of memories.

"We had 'em at the house, you know, once a week," Luckey says. "And then in 1991, they afforded me the title of honorary Blue Angel because I tried to make them part of my family, and that was their way of saying thanks."

"For three months, it is absolutely a soundtrack of the city," Sedalia Sanders, mayor of El Centro, says.

"Do we get used to it?" Sanders asks. "We look forward to it. It would be similar, I would say, [to how] Capistrano likes when they have the swallows come back. We're very excited when the Blues come back to town."

When their feet are on the ground, the Blue Angels will visit hospitals and schools and attend parties in their honor.

"We actually spend more time in El Centro than we do in our home in Pensacola," says Captain Greg McWherter, the team's flight leader.

"We show up with a rather large footprint," McWherter says. "We've got noisy aircraft, we've got a ton of sailors and Marines, we've got equipment, and we've got requirements, and you'd be amazed how welcome we are here."

In recent years, the Blue Angels have been a welcome distraction for a town dealing with an unemployment rate that hovers around 27 percent. There's a shared sense of pride as they watch the team come together, perfecting those jaw-dropping maneuvers.

And when it's time for the Navy's flight demonstration squadron to take its show around the country, a little bit of the Imperial Valley goes with them.

"It's a good feeling," Lisa Gallinat says. "They've done a fine job, they're ready to go and they're taking off." And then it will be a long, hot and quiet summer around this desert town.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio.

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