Chico’s Top Gun

Former Navy Blue Angels pilot pitches in for the Chico Air Show

This photo of Vance Parker was taken in 1975, when the young Navy lieutenant was a lead solo pilot in the Blue Angels.

This photo of Vance Parker was taken in 1975, when the young Navy lieutenant was a lead solo pilot in the Blue Angels.

Photo courtesy of Vance Parker

About the Blue Angels
The Navy’s flight demonstration squadron is the oldest flying aerobatics team, formed in 1946. There are only six performing members, who typically serve two years and are split into two groups—the Diamond (four members) and lead and opposing solos (two).

Vance Parker certainly looks like you’d expect a retired Navy jet fighter pilot to look: square-jawed good looks, trim physique, an aura of quiet confidence. It’s not hard to imagine him behind the controls of an F-14, pulling seven Gs.

Not only was he once a fighter pilot, he was also a member of the Navy’s Blue Angels flight demonstration squadron. In that role, he traveled the country, performing jaw-dropping aeronautical gymnastics at shows like this weekend’s Chico Air Show.

“Those were the best years of my life,” Parker said during a recent interview in his tastefully decorated home in a quiet north Chico neighborhood. “I was an enthusiastic pilot, and I loved being in the cockpit. There’s no better flying in the world than that—and I was getting to do it!”

Parker has known his fair share of adventure—and adrenalin rushes—beginning with his very first training flight as a Blue Angels pilot. He and his teammates were in Pensacola, Fla., learning how to fly A-4 Skyhawks. On his first flight as a two-plane formation, the other pilot didn’t get his canopy completely locked down. Both men realized the problem shortly after takeoff, when the canopy separated from the airplane and landed on the base golf course.

That pilot had to abort his mission and return to the airport for a precautionary landing. As Parker continued alone to the practice area, he thought, “This is going to be an interesting couple of years!”

Blue Angels teammate Al Cisneros, who flew with Parker in 1977, describes him as “an exceptional human being” and outstanding naval officer. “In my 37-year career, I flew with some of the best pilots in the world, and Vance Parker is the best pilot I have ever flown with,” he said.

It’s a long road from performing in the air above thousands of people to working quietly behind the scenes on behalf of the Chico Air Show. Parker now sits on the air show committee that for the past few years has successfully orchestrated the annual event at the Chico Municipal Airport. He loves this new job—maybe not quite as much as flying F-14s, but he enjoys the process of helping put together the show each year.

This photograph shows Parker with his fellow Blue Angels in 1977, shortly after Parker began his second tour with the group. He’s standing on the left.

Photo courtesy of Vance Parker

“It’s a fun experience working with a lot of really good, really ethical, hard-working people here in Chico—people who have a lot of talent and who know how to get things done.”

Since the committee’s re-creation in 2006, when the Chico Chamber of Commerce sponsored the air show, Parker has handled acquiring the Federal Aviation Administration waiver necessary for holding an air show and having aeronautical maneuvers performed at the Chico airport.

This year proved particularly tricky, as the FAA required unprecedented documentation and paperwork. Parker stuck with the process and finally procured the waiver a mere 30 days ago, ensuring the show would go on.

He also helps plan logistics for the event and works with others to secure good aeronautical acts. “He’s a key player—he brings a lot of expertise to our committee,” said Alice Patterson, media and marketing director for the Chico Air Show for the past three years.

Gayle Womack, Chico Air Show director with 15 years of experience directing air shows, said the event has grown into a true “community” effort that includes an educational component for local schools. “It’s a way of supporting our community, and it brings an international flavor to Chico,” she said.

She described Parker’s contribution to the committee as invaluable. “If he sees we’re moving in a direction that’s not very wise, he has the background to steer us back in the right direction.” Right before the air show, when the military pilots come in, Parker greets them and makes sure they have everything they need, she said.

Originally from Fort Worth, Texas, Parker moved to Chico from San Diego in 2003 because he liked the area. He’d recently retired after working as a pilot for Southwest Airlines for 12 years.

Retirement gives him plenty of leisure time. He hikes local trails and peaks and enjoys golfing at area courses (he’s an “almost-zero-handicap golfer,” according to one of his golf buddies).

This picture was taken in 1975; Parker is second from right.

Photo courtesy of Vance Parker

An avid motorcyclist, he takes long road trips, sometimes with long-time friend and Cottonwood resident Don Burkette, whom Parker has known since they flew antique airplanes—Ryan PT-22s, 1941 WWII trainers—together in military air shows many years ago. “He rides a Honda, I ride a Harley, but we get along,” Burkette joked, describing Parker as a “great guy” who is like a brother and who, as a true pilot, enjoys navigating their extensive motorcycle tours.

Weekday mornings might find Parker having coffee at Bidwell Perk with friends, including local businessman Jim Ledgerwood, who describes his pal as “the best of the best—we kid him about not being human!” Ledgerwood and other Chico friends have traveled with Parker to a number of Blue Angels shows, where Parker arranges for them to sit in VIP seating and obtains other special privileges for them.

Parker has a daughter, Lyndsey, who attended St. Mary’s College on an athletic scholarship, graduating this year, so until recently he made frequent trips to watch her volleyball games. More recently, Lyndsey has taken up her father’s passion for hiking, and the two took a week-long camping trip through the eastern Sierras this summer.

Not too long after moving to Chico, Parker met pilots at Ranchaero Airport who belonged to the North Valley Pilots Association. When they learned about his tenure with the Blue Angels, they invited him to give a presentation to their association. He did, and they loved it.

Shortly after that, in 2006, some of them decided to resurrect the Chico Air Show, which had been defunct for several years, and invited Parker to sit on the air show committee. “The first meeting had only about five people,” he said, “and now there are about 30 or more, as well as many volunteers from the community—it’s growing in size and professionalism.”

Parker explained that more and more people have stepped forward to help as they have increasingly realized how the air show is good for Chico. “We’ve been happy with every show to date,” Parker said, “especially last year’s show, when we were able to get the Snowbirds, the Canadian Air Force flight demonstration team.” This year’s show will include an Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt demo and a military parachute team.

With its record of growing success, can the committee trump last year’s Snowbird demonstration? “We’re trying to get the Blue Angels for next year,” Parker said, sitting relaxed on his couch in shorts and a golf shirt, deeply tanned from outdoor sports, which this summer have included tubing on the Sacramento River with Lyndsey. From the look of cool determination in his blue eyes, it’s easy to believe the Blue Angels will fly over the Chico airport next summer.

Parker’s father was an airline pilot, so he had lots of early opportunities to fly, but he didn’t think about becoming a pilot until he was in college. While he was finishing up an actuarial-science degree at the University of Texas, he and a friend became interested in the Naval Flight Program, so they took a test and were accepted.

Blue Angels flight stunts often involve just two planes flying extremely close together— so they narrowly miss each other.

Photo courtesy of Vance Parker

“We reported to Pensacola, Fla., and went through the AOCS [Aviation Officer Candidate School], which is just for officers who will be pilots, then did our flight training. I was good at it,” Parker said.

After his training in Florida, he flew F-4 Phantoms on the East Coast. He was stationed in Virginia Beach, where he underwent additional training for a year. Assigned after that to the VF-32 squadron—a premium duty—off the U.S.S. Kennedy for 2 1/2 years, he completed about 450 carrier landings, including many terrifying night landings, and accumulated 1,500 hours of flight time.

As fate would have it, a former Blue Angels pilot was on the same ship as Parker and noticed and appreciated his talent. He encouraged Parker to apply to the Blue Angels and spoke on his behalf.

“I’d seen the Blue Angels fly a few times after coming into the Navy,” Parker said, “and I thought there was no way I had anything in common with those guys! As a student pilot, you feel you’re barely making it.”

An exceptional flying ability was not the only criterion for becoming a Blue Angel, however. “Almost as important was your public persona, as you had to represent the Blue Angels and the Navy as they needed to be represented.”

Parker was accepted as a Blue Angel in 1973 and began training in Pensacola for the 1974 season. The year before had been disastrous for the team, with crashes and fatalities, including the death of the flight leader. On top of that, the team had to negotiate switching from F-4 Phantoms to A-4 Skyhawks, as well as getting a new team on board, with new leadership. “It was a huge project of getting the Blue Angels air show resurrected,” Parker said.

He and his team had to choose their new airplane, modify it to accommodate dynamic maneuvers, come up with a suitable paint scheme, oversee lightening the planes through removal of weapons systems, and attend to many other details.

As a solo pilot, he made fast friends with the other solo pilot who chose him, Jerry Tucker. “We got along great flying and as buddies—you have to be very tight emotionally and mentally.”

The lead and opposing solo Blue Angel planes often fly close together, in opposite directions.

Photo Courtesy of Vance Parker

Parker was someone solid he could trust, Tucker said. “I could put my life in his hands,” which he often did when they were flying at low elevations at very high speeds. “He didn’t do anything stupid—ever.”

Tucker recounted an incident that happened when he and Parker were flying back from their last air show together, heading for their home base in Florida. It was later in the evening, and they were the last two to come back in. Air traffic control gave them a vector toward Pensacola, but this brought them suddenly into a level 5 thunderstorm, including huge flashes of bright lightning and extreme turbulence.

Blinded for a moment, Tucker recovered to find that he was thrown completely off course, but Parker was still right on his wing. “Vance stayed there—he never moved at all! He was always there. Where I went, he went.”

After serving as opposing solo pilot in 1974, Parker flew as lead solo pilot the next year. After he left the team to fly F-14 Tomcats at the naval air station in Miramar, Calif., a plane crash in 1977 led to his recall to the Blue Angels, as the group needed someone who could “hit the air flying.”

Cisneros said that when Parker came back to fly with the Blues for his third year, he executed the maneuvers perfectly, as if he had never stopped. “He came back to fly the airplane at air show altitudes in only six practices—an amazing feat.”

Because of his talent, the team was able to quickly create and introduce a new maneuver into its repertory called “tuck-over break” that is still flown today.

Parker has no shortage of stories about his years with the Blue Angels. In one of his team’s first air shows, in Lexington, Ky., the show was running smoothly before a crowd of more than 100,000 people. “Jerry and I came in for a maneuver called horizontal rolls, where we flew directly at each other, then just before crossing, performed three aileron rolls.” (The aileron is a hinged part of the trailing edge of an airplane wing that is used to maintain lateral stability or to bank or roll.)

After 1 1/2 rolls, when Parker was upside down, he felt something break on the controls of his airplane. He rolled right side up, looked out his window, and saw the violent maneuvers had caused the right aileron to come off.

Photo courtesy of Vance Parker

Putting his extensive experience on aircraft carriers to use, Parker quickly determined he could make an arrested landing at the field by catching a cable across the runway with the tail hook. He made a safe landing, albeit a much faster one than usual.

How did these close calls affect him? “In those days, nothing fazed me. You either lived through it or you didn’t live through it. It gets your full attention while you’re doing it!”

Another tail hook story: In a 1977 air show just south of Toronto, flying as opposing solo, Parker entered into a maneuver where he and the lead solo pilot both dropped their tail hooks, followed by the lead solo’s rolling inverted. As the mirror image formation approached the crowd, both pilots lowered the landing gear, creating a dramatic visual effect.

But the lead solo brought them in too low, and Parker’s tail hook caught on an electrical transmission cable. The lead solo’s plane appeared to fly away from him, climbing, but in reality it was Parker’s plane decelerating, being dragged down by the cable.

“My mind raced, and I thought I was just going to have to eject,” Parker said. But right when he was about to pull the ejection handle, the cable broke and started weaving through his tail hook, almost burning off the tip.

As his plane approached a field with some trees beyond it, he thought to himself, “I’m still going to have to eject,” but then, at the last second, the cable released and he shot up like a rocket.

“The maintenance crew couldn’t believe I survived that,” he said. “They just shook their heads, and the other pilots patted me on the back and said, ‘We’re glad you’re still here!’ ”

The maintenance crew mounted the tail hook on a big plaque and presented it to Parker. Now he proudly displays it on a living-room wall.

After his last year on the team, Parker went on to fly F-14s on the West Coast, did some tours at sea, and became the commanding officer of a fighter squadron, a group of about 14 airplanes, 30 pilots, and 300 enlisted people. He spent a fair amount of time—about 40 percent—at sea, including deployments on the U.S.S. Ranger.

Later, he was assigned as navigator to the U.S.S. Independence, where he was responsible for the ship’s movement. “I was a naval officer, not just a pilot,” he explained. “I had to learn about what goes on out there, at sea—how ships at sea work.” After that, he worked as wing operations officer in Miramar, finally retiring after 24 years of service in 1991 and then going to work for Southwest.

Parker said he hasn’t flown in quite a while. Would he, if he had the chance? “I wouldn’t fly one of those Cessna 172s,” he said just a trifle disdainfully. “If I was going to fly, it would have to be an F-14 or F-18.” Would the current Blue Angels allow him to get in one of those? “I could probably arrange that,” he replied, quickly adding, “But I’d probably have to sit in the back seat—and I could never do that!”