• Dusty Weis

Lead Balloon Ep. 36 - The US Navy Blue Angels: Public Affairs and Marketing at 500 Miles Per Hour

Lead Balloon embeds with the world's most elite, "high-tempo, ready-to-rock-and-roll" public affairs and marketing team.


The U.S. Navy Blue Angels flight demonstration squadron is not only the world’s most well-known group of elite performing aviators.


It’s also—and people forget this—a group of elite public affairs and marketing practitioners.

From the pilots to the technicians turning wrenches on the planes, every Blue Angels team member is trained to uphold the unit's 76 years of tradition and legacy. As a brand management exercise, there is perhaps no other initiative in the world as rigorous and disciplined.


And at the heart of this publicity apparatus is a small but extraordinary group of public and media relations practitioners whose duties would literally make most strategic communicators pass out.


The Blue Angels public affairs team operates under grueling physical conditions, works brutal hours and is held to meticulous standards befitting one of the most storied aviation units in history, where the stakes are always life and death.


They populate social media accounts on behalf of the Blue Angels brand, coordinate ride-alongs with local media and VIPs, and are even called upon to fly photography missions with the squadron, experiencing the same adverse G-forces as the pilots themselves.


We wanted to tell the story... of the people who tell the Blue Angels' story, embedding with the Blue Angels Public Affairs team for the first segment in this two-part series.


So in this episode, we meet the team as they prepare for and fly at the Chicago Air and Water show, one of more than 60 air shows the Blue Angels headline across North America each year.


The Blue Angels are supported by a team of more than 150 U.S. Navy and Marine Corps personnel, and we meet a number of them, including:

  • Executive Officer, Commander Jon Fay

  • Maintenance Officer, Lt. Commander Brian Abe

  • #7 Pilot and Narrator, Lt. Commander Griffin Stangel

  • Public Affairs Chief MCC Paul Archer

  • Public Affairs Specialist MC1 Cody Deccio

  • Public Affairs Specialist MC1 Bobby Baldock

  • Public Affairs Specialist MC2 Cody Hendrix

Special thanks as well to Blue Angels Public Affairs Officer Lt. Chelsea Dietlin for helping coordinate Lead Balloon's embed with the squadron, as well as Jim Schlueter, Paul Guse and Dave Oates.


Subscribe to the Podcamp Media e-newsletter to be notified when we post video of this extraordinary experience.


Here's a video preview of next month's epic season finale with the Blue Angels.

Special music for this episode was performed and recorded by Ty Christian and Brian Koenig of the metal act Lords of the Trident, which is touring this fall in the U.S., Canada and Japan.


Additional music by Michael Briguglio, the Revolution and the Realist.



Transcript:


Dusty Weis:

The US Navy Blue Angels Flight Demonstration Squadron is not only the world's most well known group of elite performing aviators. It's also, and people forget this, a group of elite public affairs practitioners.


CDR Jon Fay:

Ultimately we're in brand management. Brand management of a very iconic brand, right? A team with 76 years of tradition and legacy.


Dusty Weis:

That tradition and legacy are epitomized by the Blue Angels, six Blue and Gold Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets, and of course the pilots who fly them.


Blue Angels Pilot:

I feed off the enthusiasm and energy. Trust me.


Dusty Weis:

The Blue Angels headline around 60 air shows in 30 locations throughout North America each year, and it takes a team of more than 150 Navy and Marine personnel to keep this adrenaline soak stunt show flying high. Among them is a small but extraordinary group of public affairs and media relations practitioners whose duties would literally make most strategic communicators faint.


MC1 Cody Deccio:

There are certain maneuvers in the demonstration where you are pulling a fair amount of Gs. I kind of just put my camera down and just try and stay conscious because, at that point, your camera weighs so much that you can't even hold it up anyways.


Dusty Weis:

During this episode, the first in a two part series, we spend a weekend embedded with the world's most elite public affairs unit at the Chicago Air and Water Show to explore a day in the life of the Blue Angels team and find out what it takes to do strategic communications at 500 miles an hour.


Dusty Weis:

I'm Dusty Weis from Podcamp Media. This is Lead Balloon, a podcast about compelling tales from the world of PR marketing and branding told by the well-meaning communications professionals who live them.


Dusty Weis:

Thank you for tuning in. Here on Lead Balloon we tell stories of strategic communicators doing their jobs under the most intense, high stakes, professional circumstances that most of them have faced in their careers because I think there's a lot we can learn from people who have been there and done that. But after embedding with the Blue Angels, I can safely say that there is no more intense and high stake strategic communications initiative in the world. And I'm going to spend the next two episodes of this podcast proving it. So if these are the sorts of stories you're into, please make sure to follow this podcast in your favorite app. Also, we got some incredible, rare, up close video of the Blue Angels in action and you're going to want to follow Podcamp Media on LinkedIn, Instagram or TikTok to see that because wow. Just wow.


Dusty Weis:

Now, the Blue Angels Flight Demonstration Squadron has a remarkable story and since we launched this podcast 35 episodes ago, I have wanted to tell the story of the people who tell that story, so to speak. And it was a tremendous honor and an eye-opening experience to be invited to do that. And along with public affairs officer, Lieutenant Chelsea Dietlin, my main point of contact and the person coordinating everything for me was Public Affairs Chief, Paul Archer. And while he may have one of the best PR and marketing jobs in the world and many of his predecessors have gone on to hold some of the highest level comms roles in the federal government, it turns out Paul fell into strategic communications almost by accident. And his story shows that there's an avenue into this career that many of us might not ever have considered.


MCC Paul Archer, Blue Angels Public Affairs Chief
MCC Paul Archer, Blue Angels Public Affairs Chief

MCC Paul Archer:

I joined the Navy. I initially wanted to be a Navy Seal. That didn't work out. I'm not very good at pull ups. So the backup job I picked was Mass Communication specialist, which was marketed towards me by the person in the recruiting office as like combat camera. Didn't think I'd even make it as a career. I'd do it for a few years, get out, go to school. Went to boot camp, I did all that stuff, went to A school in Fort Mead, Maryland. That's where all the mass communications specialists in the Navy receive their training. That was the first time I had been handed like a DSLR and thought about public communications. Luckily, growing up, I think I was kind of artistic and I'm a people person, so it just kind of worked out. After that, got to go to Air Crew School, become a designated aerial photographer.


MCC Paul Archer:

After that, USS, Ronald Reagan was my first ship. Flying around taking pictures junior. So my goal, my job was just to execute like, "Hey, we need photos. Go get these photos." So I did that on three aircraft carriers and then from there I went to the Pentagon where I worked at the head communication officer of the United States Navy. And that's where I ran all the social media stuff for Big Navy for a while along with the team there. And that's where I kind of started to grow my career and see things from the different greater strategic communications side of the house. It was a baptism by fire.


Dusty Weis:

Spending time in proximity to a Washington and leadership there and the politics there.


MCC Paul Archer:

Having the keys to social media pages that represent the entire United States Navy, which is a government entity and having to be the person literally putting in the words and talking on behalf of the Navy during elections, COVID pandemic, from strategic communications' aspect of the house, that was definitely wild, but it was good for me. It was a lot.


Dusty Weis:

Intense.


MCC Paul Archer:

It was intense. And then from there I came to the Blue Angels. That's kind of my journey and it's just kind of evolved from there. I ended up getting my degree from Arizona State, the Walter Cronkite School, in Mass Communications and Journalism. So the Navy kind of put me on that road and now I'm just driving.


Dusty Weis:

It's an incredible job, an incredible opportunity to get to tell the story of the US Navy Blue Angels. But what is... Can you rehash for me what is the mission?


MCC Paul Archer:

The Blue Angels mission, in essence, the Blue Angels were created because after World War II, Admiral Andrews wanted the American people to see the air power of the United States Navy and everything that goes into it and how awesome these aircraft are. But the thing is, the Navy inherently, in our duties and job, the Navy Marine Corps, they're not here. We're out at sea, we're forward deployed. So how do you get the American people to be able to understand naval aviation?


Dusty Weis:

That was where Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Chester Nimitz's idea for a flight demonstration squadron would fill a key need for the US Navy. For aviators experienced combat Veterans of World War II's Pacific theater were selected as the inaugural class of pilots for the unit and set to work, developing a choreographed air show that would capture the public's imagination, boost navy morale and help the Navy better position itself for a share of the US's shrinking post-war defense budget.


Dusty Weis:

Originally assigned four Grumman F6F-5 Hellcats, high powered propeller planes designed to launch off carriers at sea, the group perfected its initial maneuvers in secret over the Florida Everglades. In the words of flight leader Butch Voris, "So that if anything happened, just the alligators would know." They debuted their airshow in Jacksonville to a warm reception from both the public and naval brass alike. And within three years transitioned from World War II era propeller driven fighters to the next generation jet planes that would dominate aerial warfare in the second half of the 20th century.


Archival Footage:

Four men, hand picked by the Navy, welded together into a united team to conquer the unexplored reaches of the heavens. These are the United States Navy's Blue Angels.


Dusty Weis:

In 1954, the first Marine Corps pilot joined the Blue Angel Squadron, cementing a partnership that still stands even today. The squadron's current format includes six demonstration planes, Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornets piloted by five naval officers and one Marine Corps aviator, plus a seventh pilot who flies a special two-seater jet for media and VIP ride alongs. And the composition of the squadron continues to evolve to reflect growing diversity within the Navy and Marine Corps ranks. The Blue Angels announced this summer that, for the first time, a woman has been chosen to fly one of the six demonstration jets in next year's lineup. Lieutenant Amanda Lee will have that historic honor.


MCC Paul Archer:

But once the announcement was made, the reaction was extremely positive and my mother-in-law and my wife, everyone was like, "That's amazing and I can't believe you're on the team. Have you met her?" And it's cool. It's going to be extremely gratifying to see and very special to be a part of the public affairs team for when she checks in and get to see that story unfold.


Dusty Weis:

Hopefully you've seen the Blue Angels in action or at least caught video of a show, but they're iconic for their tight precise formation flying, their spectacular loops in jaw dropping stunts and 700 mile an hour close past daredevil maneuvers that'll make just about any one gasp. But every move is carefully choreographed and painstakingly rehearsed to trigger the maximum wow factor and deliver on 76 years of Navy and Marine Corps legacy.


MCC Paul Archer:

That's our job. We represent the Navy Marine Corps. Everyone at sea, abroad, out there doing the real job and we're just kind of the poster child, just trying to represent them accordingly.


Dusty Weis:

One of the reasons that we wanted to do this episode, I think people look at the Blue Angels very often and they forget that it's public affairs operation, at its core. Your mission is to get out and get people excited about what the Navy does.


MCC Paul Archer:

In essence, everyone on the team is a public affairs person because everyone on the team is out there with the public. They go to the schools. If you're wearing this uniform, you are representing the Blue Angels. So we do provide PA training to everyone on the team, from our supply department, medical, the one spinning screws on the jet and turning wrenches and they are also representing the organization as a whole. So they have to get kind of spun up on the public relations side of the house.


CDR Jon Fay:

Ultimately we're in brand management. Brand management of a very iconic brand, right? A team with 76 years of tradition and legacy and ultimately we're protecting that.

CDR Jon Fay, Blue Angels Executive Officer
CDR Jon Fay, Blue Angels Executive Officer

Dusty Weis:

Commander John Fay leads the team of 150 Navy and Marines who keep the Blue Angels flying. He's also a former congressional affairs staffer in the office of the Secretary of Defense. And we started our weekend with the Blue Angels shadowing the public affairs team as they documented Commander Fay's speaking engagement at a high school south of Chicago.


CDR Jon Fay:

Good morning, Bulldog Nation. How are you all doing?


Dusty Weis:

That's where we met MC1, Cody Deccio, one of three mass communications specialists who serve under Chief Archer. Cody told us that the Friday before any particular air show is typically packed full of public appearances at schools, hospitals and wherever else the Blue Angels can make a splash.


MC1 Cody Deccio, Public Affairs Specialist

MC1 Cody Deccio:

And the purpose is kind of go and speak to the children and the whole thing is about inspiring culture of excellence, you understand? Kind of just a motivational speech. We also go with the recruiter as well and kind of showcase what it is we do. Show people that hard work and discipline can take you a lot of places.


Dusty Weis:

And it's often his job to document the appearances with a camera and use multimedia channels to amplify the reach of the Navy's message. His is a job that entails regular travel on weekends, long grueling hours and near constant activity.


MC1 Cody Deccio:

We definitely don't have any dull moments. Every day is filled with a lot of work, but I mean it's incredibly rewarding and also just keeps you on your toes. It makes you a better public affairs professional because obviously at this command it is very public affairs intensive, so you have to kind of carry that everywhere with you where you go. It's kind of like you're always on.


Dusty Weis:

We would wind up spending a lot of time, on this particular weekend, with Cody and learning exactly the degree to which Blue Angel staff are required to always be on. Part of protecting a 76 year old iconic brand's integrity is that there are regulations governing everything. How their hair is styled, how they dress, both on and off duty, and even how they wear their sunglasses. But after the appearance at the high school, we peeled off from Cody for a moment to meet up with another member of his team, MC1 Bobby Baldock, who was also shooting photography but of a more extreme subject matter.


MC1 Bobby Baldock:

So today I have the privilege of flying in the back seat of one of our two-seater aircraft.


Dusty Weis:

We met Bobby at an airfield in Gary, Indiana, just over the state line from Chicagoland. It's from here, that aircraft in the Chicago Air and Water show take off, land and operate for the weekend long event. Getting to downtown Chicago from Gary International Airport might take more than an hour by car, but at subsonic speeds in the air it takes less than five minutes for a jet that takes off in Gary to appear in the city skyline over Lake Michigan. And on this particular Friday, the airfield was bustling with jets, propeller stunt planes and aerial personnel carriers all running practice flights ahead of the big air show on Saturday and Sunday.

"Fat Albert," the Blue Angels' C-130 Transport
"Fat Albert," the Blue Angels' C-130 Transport

Dusty Weis:

MC1 Baldock, Bobby, was just one of dozens of Blue Angels support personnel who had flown in from Pensacola on the team's massive Lockheed Martin C-130, a four-engine semi-truck of the sky that they affectionately call Fat Albert. Blue Angels' number one through six fly in on their own as well along with the two-seater number seven planes, which aren't typically part of the air show. And when we caught up with Bobby, he was just about to get into his flight suit for his very favorite job duty.


MC1 Bobby Baldock:

As a public affairs professional for the Blue Angels, we handle a lot of the photo and video coverage, also the social media sites and then also any interviewing. We set up press conferences, media availability, stuff like that. A small piece of that is today in the back of the jet. We'll be doing a photo mission. It's a separate aircraft outside of the six plane demonstration. We'll kind of be following the demo around from different angles, trying to get the beautiful skyline in the background.


Dusty Weis:

What sort of equipment are you using? What's your gear loadout for an assignment like this?

MC1 Bobby Baldock, Blue Angels Public Affairs Specialist
MC1 Bobby Baldock, Public Affairs Specialist

MC1 Bobby Baldock:

So today I have a DSLR camera and then I also have a GoPro that I mount on top of the camera just to record video that way.


Dusty Weis:

So pretty standard kit for a photographer but what people forget is that you're in planes pulling these high G maneuvers and a 10 pound camera becomes considerably heavier. What's that like?


MC1 Bobby Baldock:

Like you said, the 10 pound camera does feel significantly heavier once the G forces come on. So you definitely have to brace your body for the G forces. All of the training that we go through, all of the preparation, we have hick maneuvers that help us to flex our legs up to our core because all of that is trying to keep the blood up in your head, otherwise you're going to take a little bit of a nap. So we definitely don't want a nap in the backseat of a jet.


Dusty Weis:

Now you mentioned the hazard of taking a nap. Is that something that's happened to you before?


MC1 Bobby Baldock:

So for me, no. But we've had people take naps before in the back. Yeah.

Dusty Weis:

It's worth noting here that when Bobby refers to taking a nap, he's not talking about sleeping on the job. Instead he's discussing the very common threat of G Force Induced loss of consciousness or G-LOC. When Blue Angels pilots and passengers experience three, four, or even seven Gs, what that means is that they're feeling up to seven times the usual pull of gravity on their bodies and their blood. You see, those kind of extreme forces pull all the blood from your brain if you're not prepared for them. And when that happens in the midst of a high G maneuver, it results in instant unconsciousness and or nausea among other symptoms.


MC1 Cody Deccio:

It makes it a little bit difficult to breathe. That's why we're all required to go to like G-Force training, which basically teaches us how to flex our body in a way that's going to help keep blood in your head so you do not black out.


Dusty Weis:

MC1 Cody Deccio, who also gets assigned to photo missions in the seven plane, says that shooting photography in three or 4G maneuvers requires a high degree of physical conditioning, but that taking pictures in the midst of a 7G maneuver, is basically impossible.


MC1 Cody Deccio:

I kind of just put my camera down and just try and stay conscious because at that point your camera weighs so much that you can't even hold it up anyways.


MC1 Bobby Baldock:

You don't really understand how it feels until it hits you. We can tell you all sorts of things in advance on how to prepare yourself, how to flex your body, but once it actually happens, it's real.


Dusty Weis:

MC1, Bobby Baldock, says they regularly coordinate media and VIP ride alongs to help amplify the Blue Angels impact in the communities where they perform.

MC1 Bobby Baldock:

We were in Hawaii last week and we had the privilege of flying Max Holloway, the UFC fighter. He's never been knocked out but he had a GoPro, obviously rolling in the back seat, and he said my knockout streak has ended because he passed out. I mean you can be in fantastic shape, but just if you don't understand and you don't expect the sheer force of what's going on, on your body, it's... It'll catch you off guard.


Dusty Weis:

And his advice to first time riders is to maintain good physical conditioning and take care of your body.


MC1 Bobby Baldock:

A lot of it is staying hydrated. You want to make sure you get a good night's sleep prior, get a little food in your stomach. The first couple times, obviously, is harder than afterwards, but once you kind of build up a little bit of a tolerance, then it helps you stay awake.


Dusty Weis:

What sorts of G forces are you experiencing when you're flying in seven?


MC1 Bobby Baldock:

Well, it really depends on the mission. So in the demonstration, if you are in the five or the six position, those are our two pilots that pull the most G forces. They display the maximum capabilities of the aircraft and then all of our diamond pilots, the one through four, they display the precision, the slow speed handling characteristics. So it can range anywhere between two to three Gs up to our highest maneuver, which actually is our closing out maneuver. The pitch up break, that can range seven, 7.3, somewhere around there. It's definitely... Do you like roller coasters?


Dusty Weis:

Oh yeah.


MC1 Bobby Baldock:

Well, this is the most intense roller coaster you'll ever experience.


Dusty Weis:

What are you looking forward to about flying over Chicago today?


MC1 Bobby Baldock:

Well Chicago, it's a beautiful city and I'm looking forward to seeing it from the air. It always makes a communicator's job easy when you have a backdrop like that. The photos almost take themselves. So it's... I'm really looking forward to it. I had the privilege of last year flying over San Francisco and so we'll kind of see which one I like more.


Dusty Weis:

So Bobby peeled off to go get into his flight suit and prepare for his flight in the seven plane, documenting the other six Blue Angels fighters as they executed their warmup flight over the city of Chicago. And we reconnected with MC1, Cody Deccio, whom we would be shadowing for the next part of the day's itinerary, an incredible and storied exercise called the Ground Show.


MC1 Cody Deccio:

Right now we're getting ready for the Ground Show to take place. Basically it's our enlisted team launching the jets out. My job is going to be to go around, take photos and create content for us to release later from that.


Dusty Weis:

Got it. We're talking the full Magilla. Video, audio, social.


MC1 Cody Deccio:

Yes.


Dusty Weis:

All of the above?


MC1 Cody Deccio:

Yes. So usually when we go on the road, public affairs is one of one. There's only one of us. We kind of have to be thinking the entire time, what do I want to shoot for video, what do I want to shoot for photo, so we can create it all at the end. So there's a lot of planning that goes into it and a lot of on the fly thinking as well.


Dusty Weis:

But before the pilots make their dramatic entrance, MC1, Bobby Baldock, reemerged from the hanger and strode across the tarmac, navy blue flight suit, camera casually in hand at his side, aviator sunglasses in the cock sure attitude of a person who regularly gets to ride in a $50 million exemplar of advanced avionics.


Dusty Weis:

This guy just knows how to make an entrance.


MC1 Bobby Baldock:

There you go. Fun adventure time.


Dusty Weis:

When he reaches the plane, Bobby hands his camera to number seven crew, Chief Cameron Tucson, and bolts up a ladder into the back seat of the plane. Cam then helps him through the five minute process of settling in, getting his helmet on and checking his coms equipment.


MC1 Bobby Baldock:

Our seven crew chief helps me get all strapped in. He does a little safety check, make sure all the harnesses are safe and tight and secure because we will be going inverted today. So I'm going to make sure I'm not hitting my head on the canopy.


Dusty Weis:

What other equipment you're wearing right now? You said you had to put on a special flight suit.


MC1 Bobby Baldock:

So we have safety harnesses. There's lower and upper straps that help in case of ejection. They help ensure that my legs come in tight prior to exiting the aircraft.


Dusty Weis:

And then are you wearing anything else under the flight suit as far as like blood flow, that kind of stuff?


MC1 Bobby Baldock:

Nope, I just got my undershirt, my socks and boots. None of the pilots wear G suits or anything, so in turn we don't wear G suits in the back.


Dusty Weis:

Okay.


MC1 Bobby Baldock:

Something different obviously than what they operate with out in the fleet.


Dusty Weis:

With Bobby's preparations complete, that meant it was almost time for the squadron to lift off. So we followed Cody back to a good vantage point for the upcoming ground show,


MC1 Cody Deccio:

Once the jets come online and everything, you guys are going to stay right next to me and we're not going to go anywhere dangerous, so don't worry about that. Also, it'll prevent you from getting yelled at.

Dusty Weis:

Cody gestures over to the crew coordinator who has positioned herself in the middle of the tarmac wearing an imposing radio headset and is very clearly in charge of everything that happens on the ground here. I make a mental note that she is definitely not one to be trifled with as each crew chief takes their position at the nose of their individual planes, which are lined up on the tarmac in a precise row. A flurry of bright blue at the end of the line announces the arrival of the Blue Angels pilots. The crew coordinator snaps the crew chiefs to attention.


Crew Coordinator:

Here we go.


Dusty Weis:

The chatter of the airfield dies away and there's no sound but the wind. The ground show has begun. Patiently, methodically the pilots form a line, falling into parade rest stance with their arms behind their backs. At the far left is Captain Brian Kesselring, commanding officer of the Blue Angels and flight leader... Blue Angel one in the six plane formation.


Dusty Weis:

At his command the other six pilots snap to and begin striding in tandem along the row of waiting jets snapping off a smart salute to the crew chief standing at attention. As the formation reaches each plane in turn, its pilot breaks away from the others in a sharp 90 degree turn, salutes his crew chief and approaches the ladder, which he ascends with a choreographed, almost robotic, bearing. Even the way they slide into their seats is highly orchestrated. A show of respect and even awe for the incredible flying machine that they're about to push to the limits of human endurance.

Dusty Weis:

Their crew chiefs, as well, have a part to play in this show. Standing at the top of the ladder and helping them strap in and don helmets in a carefully rehearsed dance that plays out every time they take the planes into the air, even if it's just for a routine flight and even if nobody's watching. Through it all mass communication specialist, Cody Deccio, is snapping away with his camera. Long lens a fixed to heighten the visual drama to the full extent, moving from vantage to vantage because he knows this dance, step per step, as well.


MC1 Cody Deccio:

And then they'll send a signal down the line, you'll hear them hype up the power, they all come down at the same time, put the ladders up, come to the front of the jet and they start the process of starting a jet.


Dusty Weis:

Nice.


Dusty Weis:

In a moment that is exactly what we see. As the crew chief's encouragement echoes out across the tarmac, they slide down the ladders, fold them into the side of the planes and stand ramrod straight. Then, at some inaudible signal, they sprint out 10 paces, turn and face the planes. I hold my breath and after a brief pause, six, twin engine Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornets, roar to life in unison. The sound quickly drowns out everything else at the airfield as Cody moves along the line, capturing images that will populate the Blue Angels social feeds. And it's clear where these planes get their name. The spooling engines sound like an unholy mutant hornets nest. Feral. Unstoppable.


Dusty Weis:

There's no chance of yelling over that noise even with radios, so the crew chiefs signal the pilots using karate like arm movements and the pilots test their control flaps in response, the planes rocking from the motion like eager horses at a starting gate. As each plane finishes its ready checklist, the crew chiefs fall into parade rest. There's a puff of white cloud as the pilots test their smoke canisters in unison and the crew chiefs turn as one and run back past the crew coordinator.


Dusty Weis:

Their duties complete, they adopt an easy swagger, laughing, back slapping and high fiving like they've just won a football game because every takeoff is a celebration, whether there's a crowd of onlookers or not. And as the crew coordinator stands at attention, urged on by the applause, the cheers, and even the rock and roll horns of the crew, the Blue Angels pull away in sequence. One, two, three, four, five and six with MC1, Bobby Baldock, and his seven pilot trailing close behind them, and taxi off down the runway. Bobby has his job to do up in the sky and mass communication specialist, Cody Deccio, still has his own set of duties here on the ground.


MC1 Cody Deccio:

All right, now we're going to shoot the take off.


Dusty Weis:

Awesome.


Dusty Weis:

We crossed the tarmac to a spot that Cody scouted out the previous day.


MC1 Cody Deccio:

A big challenging part of the job is the fact that you're kind of shooting the same thing every single time, so every single demo that you go to, you're trying to think, "How can I show it differently? How can I make it more interesting than before?" So the gears in my head are always turning, trying to figure out how to do it differently.


Dusty Weis:

In another minute we hear the planes screaming down the runway. First, one through four take off in their diamond formation. Then the solos, five and six, in tandem. And finally number seven in the photo chase position. They tear off in the direction of downtown Chicago and just like that, we finally catch a break in the action.


Dusty Weis:

Cody, that didn't suck.


MC1 Cody Deccio:

Of course, it didn't. Great time. So whenever I'm working an air show and I get a couple minutes of downtime, usually what I'll do is I'll go to my vehicle and I'll set up my laptop and that's when I'll start doing my editing, sending out emails, getting a hold of my point of contacts, just trying to get anything done in the space that I have. Basically our hanger and our vehicle turned into a mobile editing station. So for instance, yesterday we shot the launch of the aircraft. All of our stuff has been edited and approved and now that all I have to do is take the product that I created yesterday and now draft up a post for social media and then post it. And then obviously take the photos that I just took, download them, start organizing them and editing them and then getting them ready for tomorrow.


Dusty Weis:

Right? Yeah. And then you do it all over again?


MC1 Cody Deccio:

Yep.


Dusty Weis:

I admit that, until I watched that ground show, I hadn't really fully grasped what XO John Fay, meant when he said that the Blue Angels was an exercise in brand management. Every movement, every action, no matter how routine, choreographed within inches and seconds, is a part of that brand. And so too are the love and enthusiasm that these pilots and technicians demonstrate for their jobs and their planes. We hang around and get to know Cody a little bit better in the ready room and before too long a series of roars announces Bobby Baldock's return along with the rest of the squadron. We run out to greet him in the hanger and find him looking tired, but grinning and soaked in sweat. Tell us about your flight.


MC1 Bobby Baldock:

It was awesome. Yeah, that was one of the coolest experiences I think I'll ever get to be a part of. They are literally flying between buildings and the precision and the maneuvering, it's insane up there.


Dusty Weis:

Now, today was kind of a warm up flight, right?


MC1 Bobby Baldock:

Today was a practice demonstration. Yes sir.


Dusty Weis:

There weren't necessarily the crowds out along the lakefront right there, but...


MC1 Bobby Baldock:

There were still a lot of people. Yeah, it was cool. We could look down and see all the boats that were out there on the water. It was pretty neat.


Dusty Weis:

You don't ever get nervous flying up there, do you?


MC1 Bobby Baldock:

No. No. The people that are flying the jets that I'm flying with, they are professionals. They know exactly what they're doing. Everything's about communication up there. So they're really good at saying, "Hey, some Gs are about to come on. Kind of brace yourself." So.


Dusty Weis:

Coming back from a mission like this, obviously you're pretty wore out, pretty tired, a little bit sweaty?


MC1 Bobby Baldock:

Yeah. Yeah. The AC is relatively good, but unfortunately they don't have air conditioned seats. You're working out up there, right? The camera feels heavy when you're pulling the Gs. You're straining your body, you're flexing your whole body to keep the blood flow up in your head, so I'll feel it tomorrow for sure in my legs. It'll be... It's like a really intense leg workout.


Dusty Weis:

A really intense leg workout where you might pass out and you'll definitely be subjected to other worldly levels of physics brute force. And that's what MC1, Bobby Baldock, considers a good day. But, coming up after the break, the one force against which the power of the US Navy's most fearless aviators hails in comparison.


MC1 Bobby Baldock:

If there's not enough visibility or if the cloud coverage is too low, then they won't be able to fly.


Dusty Weis:

How does the Blue Angels Public Affairs team backstop against Mother Nature at the Chicago Air and Water Show? And I ask them whether they think I could hack it as a member of the team with a surprise twist. That is coming up in a minute. You're on Lead Balloon.


Dusty Weis:

This is Lead Balloon and I'm Dusty Weiss. If it's my job to bring you tales of strategic communicators doing their jobs under the most intense, high stakes, professional circumstances there are, and I like to think that it is, that embedding with the US Navy Blue Angels Public Affairs team for the weekend of the Chicago Air and Water Show, is pretty much the best assignment I could hope for. After a full day of meeting the team and watching them run practice demonstrations out of their temporary home at the Gary Indiana International Airport, my team and I get home late, literally recharge our batteries and then crash hard. But when I wake up, yesterday's bright blue skies have been replaced by ominous low hanging clouds, and I drive to meet up with the public affairs team, worried that day one of the Chicago Air and Water show might be a bust.


Dusty Weis:

Good Morning.


MC1 Cody Deccio:

Hey.


Dusty Weis:

Stuck rolling out with me today?


MC1 Cody Deccio:

I guess so.


MC1 Cody Deccio:

All right. Hope you have a raincoat. There's rain out there.


Dusty Weis:

Oh, I'll probably just get wet.


Dusty Weis:

I ride with the team from their hotel to the show site at North Avenue Beach, which is as packed with people as you'll ever see it. But by the time that we arrive, it is indeed starting to rain and not just a light mist either.


Dusty Weis:

I hear something about a tent?


Dusty Weis:

The team hauls in their gear, takes their positions, and the waiting game begins. I find myself huddling under a park shelter with MC1, Bobby Baldock and Cody Deccio.


Dusty Weis:

Well, I suppose this is as good a time as any to ask you about the inclement weather policy and practices of the Blue Angels.


MC1 Bobby Baldock:

We don't make that call. Boss makes that call if they're going to fly or not.


Dusty Weis:

Which one's boss?


MC1 Bobby Baldock:

Number one. Commanding officer, number one.


Dusty Weis:

Oh, okay. Yep, yep. Is it just a lot of hurry up and wait? How does it work?


MC1 Bobby Baldock:

Well, I mean obviously safety is the number one concern so if they're not able to fly the demonstration safely, they're not going to do it. A lot of it is kind of like a game time decision where we can potentially send up our number five pilot, he'll do a weather check. If there's not enough visibility or if the cloud coverage is too low, then they won't be able to fly.


Dusty Weis:

Shortly after we're informed that the show is officially delayed. Scheduled for 1:00 PM the show can only be delayed up to an hour because the airspace is only reserved until 3:00 PM. And yet, in spite of the grim news, Cody notes that the Blue Angels crew is all smiles, talking with members of the public, taken pictures with them and laughing plenty.


MC1 Cody Deccio:

The public affairs mission still isn't going to stop. Just because they don't fly doesn't mean that we aren't going to somehow get content to post. So in the event like this, we're going to just put our brains together and just try and come up with something because obviously social media platforms are very important nowadays and we don't want to go without posting just because the weather didn't cooperate one day. So I've got some stuff from the past couple days that I've kind of just saved just in case something like that happens. So we will have content to post regardless, even though we might not be able to shoot today.


Dusty Weis:

Still, I'm as nervous as anyone because I came all this way to see the Blue Angels fly, damnit.


Dusty Weis:

Looks like some folks have stuck around anyway.


MC1 Cody Deccio:

The ones that have a tent.


Dusty Weis:

But with two o'clock drawing near slowly, the rain begins to lighten and Cody decides it's time to get in position at what they refer to as center point. Literally the middle of the air show, the geographic target over which the Blue Angels Squadron centers its performance. For this show center point is a desolate, wet stretch of sandy beach that's closed to the public where a handful of Blue Angels technicians have set up the communications cart, a mobile radio control room powered by a portable generator that lets them coordinate from the ground with the pilots in the air. We get an encouraging sign as we approach. As Fat Albert, the Blue Angel C-130 transport plane, begins making low passes out over the water to warm up the crowd.


LCDR Griffin Stangel:

The C-130 is capable of carrying up payload to 40,000 pounds at a top speed of 375 miles per hour.


Dusty Weis:

It's then that I get to meet Blue Angels maintenance officer, Lieutenant Commander Brian Abe, one of a half dozen crew manning the comms cart in rain slickers and big bulky radio headsets.


LCDR Brian Abe:

It's fun just having four different radios kind of going off your head at the same time.


Dusty Weis:

It's a lot to keep track of. I don't know how you do it.


LCDR Brian Abe:

Well, it's one of those things, you do it enough and you just kind of understand and listen when things are going to come.


Dusty Weis:

I got to ask you, what's your favorite part of a show like this on a location like this? Even though the weather's crap, even though we're standing here in the rain and it's less than ideal, what do you love about it?


LCDR Brian Abe:

I love about it the fact, especially here, if you could walk down here and everywhere, there's just tons of people. So remote shows and beach shows like this, you can get so many more people in the crowd out here. And then just the fun, unique challenges. In no place in the world are you going to be able to fly through buildings like Chicago or San Francisco. So this is probably one of the hardest show sites between Seattle, Hawaii. They were just in Chicago. These are probably the three hardest shows we're going to fly this year.


Dusty Weis:

Definitely. What's the ETA on the jets? Do you know?


LCDR Brian Abe:

It's a slide right now. You know we're talking about six aircraft that have to join up with each other. You kind of have to make sure and be able to see everything. So just for the safety of the demo, we're going to slide and hopefully get something. We have until three o'clock.


Dusty Weis:

TBD.


LCDR Brian Abe:

TBD, that's what we do. We'll wait all the way up till three o'clock to get a show out for everybody.


Dusty Weis:

The minutes tick by as Cody and I discuss ideal lenses and shutter speeds for photographing subsonic jets over a city skyline.


LCDR Brian Abe:

I recommend keep that shutter high.


Dusty Weis:

Oh, yeah.


LCDR Brian Abe:

Usually if I'm shooting the jets, I won't go below 1200.


Dusty Weis:

The rain slows, stops entirely, and then, through a break in the clouds, we catch sight of a lone blue and gold jet flying low along the Lake Michigan shoreline.


MC1 Cody Deccio:

So earlier Bobby was talking about how five will go up into a weather check. That's what's going on right now.


Dusty Weis:

The five jet banks and tears away from us out toward the middle of Lake Michigan, disappearing into the clouds. Nearby Lieutenant Commander Abe and the rest of the coms cart come alive with activity and further up the beach the seven pilot, who serves as narrator and announcer for the air show, begins pumping up the crowd in introducing the pilots.


Dusty Weis:

And far out over the lake, six blue dots flying information, sweep in over the beach and the remaining crowd, who is stuck out the rain for more than an hour, goes wild. As Cody and I track them with long lenses, the squadron sweeps around to the south and approaches along the lake front, back grounding an iconic navy pier and the Hancock Tower and make another pass and another and one more, keeping tight formation, wingtip as close as 18 inches to one another. But there are none of the renowned daredevil maneuvers or head on close passes and after one more pass over the beach, they fly off into the clouds.


MC1 Cody Deccio:

You kind of saw that coming. They ended up calling it early because of-


Dusty Weis:

They waved them off?


MC1 Cody Deccio:

Yeah. Yeah.


Dusty Weis:

That's too bad.


Dusty Weis:

We pack up our gear, now all wet and sandy, and head back to the van where MC1, Bobby Baldock, is already on his laptop sorting through yesterday's photos to try to find something appropriate for today's social media content. You get the sense that everyone's a little disappointed by the rain out, but that their biggest concern is for the fans who didn't get the full Blue Angels experience. And yet the team remains almost unnaturally chipper. You see, the sobering reality is that a little rain and an abbreviated show isn't nearly as bad as it gets for a flight demonstration squadron like this. When you push the boundaries of human endurance and technology, accidents are bound to happen and handful of Blue Angels pilots have lost their lives over the squad's 76 year history. Most recently, in 2016, when Marine Captain Jeff Kuss crashed during a practice run in Smyrna, Tennessee.


News Reporter:

Cell phone video shows Kuss and the five other Blue Angel pilots were practicing when one of the planes goes right into the ground. Video and photos from the scene show a massive fireball that shot into the sky.


Dusty Weis:

The city of Smyrna actually built a memorial to the pilot, recognizing his act of heroism in waiting to eject so that he could steer the stalling plane away from buildings and into an empty field. A sacrifice that ultimately cost him his life. I asked MC1 Cody Deccio, how those sorts of very real dangers change the way that he and the public affairs team approach the job they do every day.


Dusty Weis:

We have a saying in the field of public relations and marketing, and when you have a bad day, you shrug your shoulders and say, "Well, it's not life and death, it's just marketing. It's just public relations." Except what you do, it's life and death.


MC1 Cody Deccio:

Well, obviously aviation is inherently dangerous. We do whatever we can on the team to make things as safe as possible, but in the event that something does happen, public affairs definitely has to be ready for it.


Dusty Weis:

Yeah.


MC1 Cody Deccio:

Everything from just why is the jet not going there to possibly somebody getting hurt on the flight line or something like that. And that's why our team, we are very quick to communicate with one another. We're very quick to try and put out any information that we can and get things routed to the correct sources.


Dusty Weis:

You said something to me earlier that I thought was kind of striking, but it makes sense. And you said, "Nobody gets assigned to the Blue Angels." What did you mean by that?


MC1 Cody Deccio:

Well, so obviously all of us are in the military. While the military does try and give you a choice in where you want to go, sometimes you just get sent to where the military needs you to support the mission. At the Blue Angels, that is not the case. It's a special detail. Basically you have to put in an application to join the team, and when it comes to our team specifically, you also have to do an interview and that's so we can really get a feel for who the person is, see if they're going to be a good match for the team, because one, we're spending an incredible amount of time with each other, and then two, this command is more physically demanding than a lot of others, so we need to make sure the person's going to be up for the challenge.


MC1 Cody Deccio:

So that is why everybody is screened and hand-selected before they come to the team. And that's why when you interact with some of the people on the team, you'll notice that there's kind of a consistent level of enthusiasm. People are ready to come to work. People are ready to work hard. Even when we're stuck working for 12, 13, 14 hours, people still maintain that positive attitude. And that takes a lot of discipline and it takes the right attitude certainly.


Dusty Weis:

And the fact that you're here now, I mean that's got to be pretty validating?


MC1 Cody Deccio:

Oh, absolutely.


Dusty Weis:

This is an elite assignment.


MC1 Cody Deccio:

I remember when I got my phone call, I was absolutely ecstatic. I was in seven Japan at the time. Literally that night I started packing my bags, getting ready to go even though I still had a month left in Japan. But I just wanted to be ready. I wanted to hit the ground running.


Dusty Weis:

Take me through your career path since high school. How does one go from where you grew up in Washington to what you're doing now?


MC1 Cody Deccio:

I grew up in a small town in Washington state. I turned 18, I moved out of the house and I kind of worked some jobs that weren't great. So one day I decided I'm going to go talk to the recruiter. And then when I finally got to MEPS, which is where you do your physical screening and choose your job and stuff, they offered me a couple jobs and they offered me what's called MC. I had no idea what an MC was. I did a little bit of reading about it. It stands for Mass Communication Specialist. I ended up choosing that job, unknowingly choosing the best job in the Navy. Chose my job, waited seven months and then I shipped out for basic training. Did my basic training. Then I went to Fort Mead, Maryland for six months for basically they taught me the very basics of public affairs. It starts with public affairs law and then journalism and then you move into your photo journalism course and you move into video, then you move into graphic design.


Dusty Weis:

You came into this, it sounds like, without a lot of inclination or experience toward public affairs, strategic communications, any of that. You learned all that on the job.


MC1 Cody Deccio:

When I first joined the Navy, I had never held a camera in my life. I had never once thought about public affairs. I wanted to be a corpsman, but there was no opening at the time and I ended up getting sent to be an MC.


Dusty Weis:

I mean, have you discovered something about it that you love? Do you think that this is a career that you'll stick with now or even perhaps past your service in the Navy, if there comes a time when you step away from that?


MC1 Cody Deccio:

There are definitely things that I absolutely love about this job. Being able to go around, speak with new people all the time, learning their story. I'm a pretty talkative guy, so I love just going around chatting with people. I love being able to make friends with people and then tell their story to others because it's great watching someone's eyes light up, things like that. Also, I'm not just sent to do my job and that's all I know. My job is basically to go around and experience everybody's job and tell their story, which is very unique experience. Something that you're never going to get anywhere else in the Navy. As far as the civilian side, absolutely. I would definitely think about doing it just because this is what I've been doing now for eight years, so I feel like it would be a very good transition, especially being in the Blue Angels where it's such a high paced environment. I feel like this command definitely would set you up for success.


Dusty Weis:

One notable example of just how true that is, is MC2 Cody Hendrix. Having served almost three years as a Blue Angels communications specialist and having been promoted to Petty Officer second class, he's been doing this longer than either MC1's, Cody Deccio or Bobby Baldock.


Dusty Weis:

I'm sure that you've had the opportunity to interact with other professional communicators, maybe from a corporate background. When you tell them what you do on the job, how do they react?

MC2 Cody Hendrix
MC2 Cody Hendrix

MC2 Cody Hendrix:

The general sentiment is it's a lot. I mean, to be a part of the most forward facing public affairs program in the Navy, it's an amazing opportunity and we're all just super lucky to be able to do it because it's only a short stint. We're here for three years and we all come from the Navy. In the Marine Corps, we all go back to the Navy Marine Corps, so we just try to make the most of it while we can.


Dusty Weis:

You're in your third year now?


MC2 Cody Hendrix:

That's right.


Dusty Weis:

That means that your time with the Blue Angels will be winding down eventually. What do you have next, do you think? Do you know yet?


MC2 Cody Hendrix:

I do know, yeah. I'm going to the White House Communications Agency, so-


Dusty Weis:

Excellent.


MC2 Cody Hendrix:

... I'll be working in DC at the White House and...


Dusty Weis:

Congratulations on that. That's an excellent little promotion there.


MC2 Cody Hendrix:

Yeah, a little bit.


Dusty Weis:

I've had the occasion to interview a couple other White House communicators on the podcast and I think they will tell you that, once again, you're entering in elite fraternity and it's something that you'll take with you and cherish for the rest of your days too. But that's really, really excellent. Congratulations.


MC2 Cody Hendrix:

Thank you. I'm excited to get there and to learn from a lot of people who've been doing it for years and are, I mean, super professional in the industry. So I think it's a great opportunity and I'm super excited.


Dusty Weis:

I get the sense that people that work for the Blue Angels, in any capacity, but particularly a public affairs capacity, that's a thing on a resume that opens a door for you. Do you get to stay in touch with other people who have previously held the position that you have right now? What have some of them gone on to do?


MC2 Cody Hendrix:

It's a great question. I mean, so public affairs officer, for example, John Kirby, he's now the... He was the CHINFO, so the Chief of Navy information. I mean, I think he was the Pentagon spokesperson and now way up there. So I mean, that's just one public affairs professional who went on to do great things. But there's a bunch. I mean, there's a guy, he was on the team in the early two thousands, now he's like the director of communications at the FBI. There a lot of people in the military public affairs sector. With our experience, we get to go on and work in government and three other agencies that value our experience with the military. So a lot of stuff in that sector that I personally am really stoked about and would love to be a part of.


Dusty Weis:

Looking at the time that you've spent here and knowing that there's transition on the horizon for you, what are you going to miss the most about the Blue Angels?


MC2 Cody Hendrix:

There's so much. It's such a special place. I think the biggest thing for me is working amongst a bunch of like-minded individuals who all really want to be here. We have this saying, I'm sure you've heard it, "Glad to be here where everybody is just happy to be at the place they work." They applied to be there and they consider themselves lucky and it really infects the entire work culture and it's such a positive place. And of course there's going to be down days, but, I mean, more than any other place I've worked, the teamwork and the comradery, it's so tight knit and it's absolutely what I'll miss the most and I think I'll be hunting for that the rest of my career.


Dusty Weis:

Finding serenity and fulfillment in the extremes. It's something we try to celebrate here on this podcast, and the reason that we do is because those intense, those scary, those extreme moments are the crucible that forges unflappable strategic communicators. Spending a weekend embedded with the Blue Angels public affairs team, Cody, Bobby, Cody and their public affairs chief, Paul Archer, as well as the rest of the team, gave me a new appreciation for just how true that is. And it left me wondering... Being the best of the best is more a piece of military culture than a piece of PR and marketing culture. But how many of us working in the strategic communication field could even hope to try and work under the conditions that the Blue Angels Public Affairs team excels in, every day? I put that question to the Blue Angels public affairs chief himself.


Dusty Weis:

So, I've got to say MCC Archer,


MCC Paul Archer:

Yes.


Dusty Weis:

We've seen and done some incredible things and I've just got to say, it's been a privilege for me to get to follow you guys around and see how you do your job in this incredible and storied unit. But I've got to say, in my opinion, I don't even think that one out of every 10 public affairs professionals could do the job that you do. What do you think?


MCC Paul Archer:

Like I said, we try to be humble. I think we've got a talented team here we can't execute our mission without. I love the guys, I love our shop, from PAO all the way down through. I will agree with you. I do not think it's for everyone, so I'm very fortunate and lucky to be working with individuals we are. I think we are cut from a different sort of high-tempo, ready-to-rock-and-roll cloth and we're just trying to do the best we can representing the Navy Marine Corps at every show site around the country.


Dusty Weis:

I mean, you've seen me in action here a little bit, lugging the camera around a little bit. Do you think I could do it?


MCC Paul Archer:

Well, there's only one way to find out.


Dusty Weis:

Make no mistake, this is actually happening. Coming up on the season finale of the Lead Balloon podcast...


Dusty Weis:

This is incredible. Whoo-hoo!


Dusty Weis:

The Blue Angels Public Affairs team straps me into the back of an F/A-18 Super Hornet, trains me on G strain exercises, loads me up with airsick bags... And Lead Balloon becomes the first podcast to fly with the US Navy Blue Angels.


LCDR Griffin Stangel:

We're going to roll inverted and then pull for the back half of the loop. You ready to go?


Dusty Weis:

Oh, hell, yes.


Dusty Weis:

Can I hack it in the danger zone? Will I black out under the seven Gs of strain? Tune in November 1st for the story of this incredible, once in a lifetime, experience and make sure you're subscribed to Lead Balloon in your favorite app so you don't miss this one when it drops. Also, we captured a ton of video of the Blue Angels in action and it is so cool. We're going to be releasing the whole thing as a video mini doc.


Dusty Weis:

Subscribe to the podcast Media eNewsletter by clicking the link in the episode description or visit podcmpmedia.com, find Podcamp Media on social. This is just a story where the visual element adds so much, so I don't want you to miss that either. Special thank yous to everyone we talked to for this episode. MCC Paul Archer. MC1, Cody Deccio, MC1, Bobby Baldock, MC2, Cody Hendrix, as well as Lieutenant Chelsea Dietlin for helping orchestrate.


Dusty Weis:

I also owe a huge debt of gratitude to Jim Schlueter, Paul Guse and Dave Oates for helping put me in touch with the right people to make this episode happen. I have literally been chasing this for two years and their help was critical.


Dusty Weis:

The music you are hearing right now is a cover produced specially for Lead Balloon by Ty Christian in Brian Koenig of the Midwest-based metal act, Lords of the Trident. And if they can make Kenny Loggins sound that epic, just imagine how great their live shows are. They're going to be playing in Chicago, Grand Rapids, and Toronto in October, and they're touring Japan in December. LordsOfTheTrident.com. Additional music for this episode by Michael Briguglio, The Revolution and the Realist.


Dusty Weis:

Lead Balloon is produced by Podcamp Media where we provide branded podcast production services for businesses. Our podcast studios are located in the heart of beautiful downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but we work with brands all over North America. PodcampMedia.com. Larry Kilgore III and Beatrice Lawrence helped out with audio and video recording for this episode. Until the next time, folks, when you will hear from me in the backseat of a Blue Angels fighter jet. Yeah, still sounds unreal. It's so cool though. Thanks for listening. I am Dusty Weis.

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