From the ground, it is a magnificent dance: the nimble blue jets lacing the sky with grace and perfection, wingtips etching vapor curls in an aerial ballet at 400 knots a thousand feet up.
But for the perfectionist aviators who fly the Navy’s Blue Angels acrobatic jets - and especially for the team leader - the job can be one of isolation, pressure and psychic anguish.
Things build up, the pilots say, and start “messin’ with your jombo” - or state of mind.
This week, these pressures led to an extraordinary act. For the first time in recent memory, a leader of the legendary flying team has stepped down before his two-year tour of duty was up.
Cmdr. Donnie Cochran, 42, announced late Tuesday that he was resigning as flight leader after two seasons of uneven performances, canceled shows and his own conclusion that his skills might be lacking.
“I’m looking primarily at myself,” Cochran said at a news conference in Pensacola, Fla., where the team is based. “I needed to take some action to preclude some type of mishap from occurring.”
Lt. John Kirby, a team spokesman, said the decision was “based on some personal flying difficulties that (Cochran) was experiencing and his … (fear) that he might impair the viability of the team and, of course, safety, which is our chief concern.”
The threat of catastrophe is not the only demon roosting on the leader’s shoulder, a former Blue Angels flight leader noted in a telephone interview Wednesday.
For one thing, the job is physically demanding.
There are harsh G forces exerted on the pilot, as well as on the Angels’ aging A and B models of the F/A-18.
And, Angels pilots operate a control stick with a bungee cord that pulls with a force of 40 pounds of forward pressure. The cord helps pilots hold the plane stable but requires a powerful steady hand on the stick.
But the mental exertion is easily more troubling than the physical - especially for the leader.
“The pressure to perform to a very, very high standard is excruciating,” said the former Blue Angels leader.
“There’s no room for any error,” he said. “Perfection is what you’re always going for, but the hell of it is, you never get there. You never, never have a perfect flight. It may look perfect from the ground, but it certainly isn’t ever. But we demand that you continue to strive for that.”
Cochran took over in 1994 as flight leader of the legendary demonstration team that this year celebrates its 50th anniversary. He had earlier been the first African-American to join the Angels, and he was the first to become its leader.
There was initial grumbling that he got the leader’s job out of Navy political correctness. But Rear Adm. William B. Hayden, the chief of Naval air training who reportedly picked him, told the Navy Times last year: “We picked the guy who we thought would be the best … “
And his decision now to quit is not believed to be related to race or internal jealousy.