Background information and insider tips for seeing the Blue Angels in San Francisco.
The Blue Angels San Francisco stir the blood of the crowds every October over the beautiful San Francisco Bay! The U.S. Navy fighter planes roar in over Golden Gate and perform precision near-misses in front of Alcatraz.
The Blue Angels have been performing since 1946, when Admiral Nimitz created the group to maintain interest in naval aviation. The first team named the group after the Blue Angel nightclub in New York City.
The Angels are based in Pensacola, Florida, and put on over 60 air shows every year. Their current mission is to present a positive image of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps (and encourage recruitment for the services).
The Blue Angels fly a current Navy and Marine combat plane, the F/A-18 Hornet, with the nose cannon removed and a smoke-oil tank added.
It can fly at almost twice the speed of sound (1440 mph) but in the show goes up to 700 mph, just under the sound barrier. This pretty blue jet costs $21 million! Six other nations use this aircraft in their air force.
The six pilots flying the planes are all fighter pilots with the Navy or Marines. Their average age is 33 and they fly with the Blue Angels for two years. Some of them have gone through the Top Gun training, but it isn't required.
The pilots train during the winter, January through March; they practice six days a week, two sessions a day, so that they have flown the routine at least 120 times before they do a public show. The pilots start doing the maneuvers with the planes far apart at first, and gradually bring them closer together, so that at various points during the air show, they are flying only 18 inches apart!
To spectators watching, it looks incredibly dangerous. And it is. One miscalculation at those speeds and in such close formations could be disastrous. Since the Blue Angels began performing in 1946, 27 pilots have been killed. The fatality rate around 10%.
The most recent fatality was in Smyrna, Tennessee, on June 2, 2016, during practice for an upcoming air show. Captain Jeff Kuss, age 32, crashed into a field near the local airport. The cause is still being investigated.
The previous fatality was at an air show in South Carolina in 2007. One of the pilots blacked out during a sharp turn at the end of the show and crashed. The regular fighter pilots wear G-suits that inflate to protect them from the loss of consciousness that results when intense gravitational forces cause the blood to drain from the head, but the Blue Angels don't wear them. Sudden inflation of the suit could interfere with maneuvers in their tight formations and cause a crash. The Angels are taught to contract their stomach and leg muscles to prevent the blackout problem, but investigators guess that the pilot didn't do it this case. Very sad.
After the 2007 accident, one of the San Francisco Supervisors introduced a measure to ban the Blue Angels from performing in San Francisco, saying it was too risky in such a densely urban environment, but there was tremendous popular opposition to the ban and it didn't pass.
Following the most recent crash in 2016, another San Francisco supervisor introduced a resolution to restrict the Blue Angels from flying over land during last year's Fleet Week air show in October 2016. The resolution didn't pass and the Blue Angels performed as scheduled.
The Blue Angels perform in San Francisco the second week in October weekend in conjunction with the Columbus Day holiday. So far, each year there is a rehearsal on Thursday, then the air shows on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
The Blue Angels normally fly at 3:00 pm each day, and perform for about 40 minutes. Thursday is for familiarizing themselves with the layout and practice, but in the past, they've done the same routine that they perform on their Friday, Saturday and Sunday shows.
At 12:00 p.m. the "warm-up" show begins, which is worth watching as well: great stunt flying with a variety of aircraft, trailing colored smoke. Doing loops above the Bay, hanging in mid-air stalls, flying straight up, falling like a stone, spinning dives and pulling out at the last second just above the water.
Starting in 2016, another fighter-plane group, the Patriots Jet Team, has been performing during the show as well; very exciting as well. They'll be back for 2018.
Also returning for Fleet Week 2018 are the US Navy Leap Frogs, a parachute team, doing a jump.
Then punctually at 3 p.m. come the Blue Angels: flying in low over the Golden Gate Bridge, then dividing up to amaze the crowd, swooping and diving in tight formations, wingtips almost touching. The scariest part: two solo pilots flying straight at each other at incredible speeds, and flipping sideways or one one above the other at the last millisecond. You can feel the roar of the engines through your whole body!
The pilots do one outrageous maneuver after another: four planes flying in a tight clump, with two upside down, and their riskiest stunt, five planes do a complete inside loop in locked in a tight diamond pattern.
They do some "sneak-up-on-the-crowd" stuff, too. Lots of fun, but kind of nail-biting at the same time. Sort of like watching a firework display, with the oohs and aahs of the crowd after every amazing stunt- only much better!
Want to see the Blue Angel pilots up close? Usually on Saturday night, from 6:15 to 6:45 p.m., they're usually signing autographsin a tent set up at the entrance to Pier 39 (and not that many people showed up when I went, so the lines may not be bad). Here are two pilots from a previous show.
Below is a photo of Major Collins about to taxi out at an air show.
You can see the show from anywhere along the entire waterfront, from Pier 39 all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge. However, some spots are a lot better than others, for various reasons.
Here are my Criteria for Best Viewing Areas:
The Winners are!
Around a million people come to view the Blue Angels during Fleet Week in San Francisco; the crowds are overwhelming. Fortunately, they are concentrated in Fisherman's Wharf, especially the Aquatic park area, picnicking on the lawn and sitting in the stands. Why, I'm not sure, because they don't have a clear view of the Golden Gate and there are way too many people there for my comfort!
Here's where you don't want to be:
However, all you have to do is walk past that area (towards the bridge) until you get to the Municipal Pier (which you can't go out on, unfortunately). From there you will be at the bottom of a steepish road climbing the hill above Fort Mason. Go up the hill, and any place along the retaining wall will be a great location to watch the show.
If you get there early you can be first up on the wall, but even late-comers can be in the second row or just stand in the road and watch. If you're hungry, there are some food booths near the Municipal Pier with tasty corn dogs and roasted ears of corn, and no lines (and tons of port-a-potties, if you're desperate).
My vote for best view is being on a boat out on the water, just off the waterfront and with a clear view of the entire bay.
The Red and White Fleet has a special Fleet Week Cruise on Fridays, Saturday and Sunday to watch the Blue Angels show. The boat leaves at 1:30 pm from Pier 43 1/2, right at Fisherman's Wharf, and comes back after the show ends around 4:00 pm.
Is it expensive? No, not considering that it includes a generous buffet and a free drink (watching the Blue Angels with a glass of Napa Valley wine- not bad!) The food was catered by the Boudin Bakery in the Cannery. The price for 2018 is $85 per person, kids less, but I got tickets at half price through www.goldstar.com.
To check with Goldstar for half-price tickets, see Goldstar. Free to sign up, then see what they've got.
To book tickets directly with the Red and White Fleet, see Fleet Week Cruise.
For more photos of the Red and White Fleet Week Cruise, and info on the other Fleet Week cruises available, see Fleet Week Cruises.
On the Golden Gate Bridge: amazing to see the planes fly over the bridge, and a great view of the bay where the action is, but not the best spot to watch the near-miss in front of Alcatraz.
Pier 39: if you are willing to get there early and wait, it's a great view, right in front of Alcatraz, but you have to have patience and superior crowd tolerance. I couldn't do it.
Baker Beach: not a good viewing spot. I happened to be there once on a beautiful sunny day when the Blue Angels were performing. It was cool to watch the planes zoom over the Golden Gate from the other side, but you couldn't see any of the stunts.
Alcatraz: if you plan ahead (way ahead) and get tickets for one of the show days, you might have one of the best views of all. You can see the Blue Angels come in over the bridge and you'll have a front row view of the near misses they perform right in front of the island. See my tips on choosing the tours and getting the tickets at Alcatraz tours.
Here's the whole viewing area for the Air Show.
You can see the Marina Green (where they sell seats) is pretty far to the left: great view of the Angels coming in over the bridge, and many of the aerial maneuvers, but not as good to see the stunts in front of Alcatraz (but OK).
Zoom in to see the exact lay of the land:
For information on how to navigate via car, BART, buses and Muni, as well as the pros and cons of public transportation vs. driving, jump to my Fleet Week San Francisco page.
Check my Fleet Week parking tips for the most painless way to do it (hint: it's actually not that bad).
For pictures and information about the ships available for exploring this year, see ship tours.
Want to ride in a fighter plane? The Blue Angels don't take passengers, but an airfield in the Sonoma Valley nearby has cool World War 2 fighter planes available for rides. See vintage plane rides for more info.