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At home with the Blue Angels

During a visit to the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Fla., CNET's Daniel Terdiman gets to see the high-performance pilots up close.

The six Blue Angels F-18s fly together in perfect formation during a practice performance at their home base in Pensacola, Fla. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

PENSACOLA, Fla.--If you've ever watched a Blue Angels show, you may not have known that when the F-18 pilots are screaming across the sky, less than 2 feet apart, they're probably not looking straight ahead.

Rather, they're most likely looking sideways at the fighter just off their side, ensuring that they know exactly where it is as they rocket forward at several hundred miles per hour.

That seems like a smart thing, even though it is kind of disconcerting to think the pilots aren't exactly looking where they're going, since no one wants these high-performance jets touching while in flight.

This week, as part of my Road Trip 2008 project, I stopped in at Naval Air Station Pensacola here for a chance to watch the Blue Angels practice their demonstration show from way up close.

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In fact, when I was planning Road Trip 2008 and found out the Blue Angels are based in Pensacola, I rearranged the entire second half of the journey to attend one of the practices, which happen on a few specific dates in between the air shows all over the country.

I was invited to watch the show from the flight line, meaning I was able to get much closer than the public gets for the practices. This was nice since, while I've seen the Blue Angels fly probably more than a dozen times in San Francisco and once in Seattle, I was never very close to them.

This time, I was allowed onto the tarmac where guests get to stand, meaning I was probably a couple of hundred yards away from the planes when they were at rest (see video below for a view of the tarmac, the Blue Angels planes, and the maintenance hanger).

The show itself was spectacular, especially from up close and with many other planes as backdrops, including "Fat Albert," the team's C-130 that ferries its equipment and support crew to various stops around the country.

Afterward, I got a chance to sit down with Lt. Frank Weisser, the No. 7 Blue Angels pilot.

Of course, if you're a student of the Blue Angels, you know there are only six planes in the performances. Weisser, as the No. 7 pilot, serves a three-year term with the team--while the others stay for two years--because his first year is spent taking care of VIPs, organizational duties and talking to the press. After a year, he will step into one of the regular pilot's roles.

Two Blue Angels F-18s fly directly at each other during their practice performance at Naval Air Station Pensacola. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

I was curious how someone becomes a Blue Angels pilot, and Weisser explained that there's an application process, just like for any job. But the requirements are a little more stringent than for most: to qualify, you must have flown at least 1,250 hours as a pilot of an F-18 or F-14.

Each year, the team adds three new pilots, but there are probably only about 50 applicants, since the pool of people who have the required hours is pretty small.

Those selected as finalists then join the current team at air shows around the country so everyone can get to know each other.

"That's important for us because we're together for 300 days a year," Weisser said.

The front of a Blue Angels F-18 as seen from the side. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

The team's commanding officer, Weisser also explained, has even more strict requirements: he (or she, though the Blue Angels has never had a female member of the performance team) must have already commanded a squadron of F-18s.

One thing that surprised me is that the Blue Angels spend about two to three months training each year in the desert outside El Centro, Calif., a small town in the southeast corner of the Golden State. This was particularly interesting to me because they fly there from January to March, and for years, I traveled to near El Centro for the week between Christmas and New Year's. I guess I just missed the team when they were there all those years.

Back here in Pensacola, I was curious about whether the practice shows, both here and at various sites around the country, are any different than the formal shows they do.

Weisser said that the practices, no matter where they are, are identical, in fact, to the formal shows. And over the years, the shows have changed very little.

"We have to do it that way so we stay safe in the air," Weisser said. "There's such a small room for error, that we can't change the show...(And) one thing we pride ourselves on is our (consistency). Had you seen the show today and been on the team in the '60s or '70s, it would look very, very similar to you." (See below for a video of some of the Blue Angels' practice.)

After being on the Blue Angels, the idea is that the pilots return to whatever squadron they were part of before. The team is very adamant that pilots don't use the experience as a springboard to, say, getting a plush job flying for FedEx or some private carrier.

As I mentioned above, the planes can get as close as 12 inches during the shows, flying at speeds of between 300 and 400 knots. For a civilian who's never flown, this was a rather astounding fact. But to Weisser, it's just how things are for the team.

The team, of course, is actually two teams. The first is a group of four of the pilots who fly as part of the "diamond," always working together during a show. The second are the two solo pilots. Essentially, he explained, the Blue Angels fly two separate shows at a time.

But regardless of which team pilots are on, being able to fly as a Blue Angel is a boon for their careers, in large part because of how often they get behind the stick. They fly nearly every day, either in a formal show or in practices, and during their training months in the California desert, they fly as many as 15 times a week.

"You get to fly a ton," Weisser said, "and everyone who's a pilot loves to fly and wants to be in the air as much as they can."

Though I won't be in the cockpit of any high-performance fighter jets, Road Trip 2008 will continue for the next week or so. Please stay tuned to this blog, and to my Twitter feed.