Monterey resident Butch Voris formed the nation’s most-loved aviation team.
Thursday, April 1, 2004
In June 1946, Navy Captain Roy “Butch” Voris piloted a fighter plane in Jacksonville, Fla., at the inaugural performance of the Navy Flight Exhibition Team. For the group that was later to be known as the Blue Angels, Voris flew a Grumman F6F Hellcat painted sea blue and trimmed with gold leaf. The team wowed spectators with low-flying maneuvers in tight formation, and, Voris says, by “keeping something in front of the crowds at all times.”
Voris, who retired to Monterey after almost 24 years in the Navy and a career with NASA, sports a blue sweater embroidered with the words, “First Blue.” His personalized license plates say “First Blue.” He signs his checks “First Blue.” Plaques and awards and model airplanes overflow his office. Voris’ portrait hangs in aviation museums, including the Smithsonian. His honors include the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medals, Presidential Unit Citations, and the Purple Heart.
But his fascination with flight started long before he was asked by the Navy to form the Blue Angels.
“When I was a little kid, I’d go to the Los Angeles airport and spend all day hanging on the fence watching the big planes come in,” he says. “My hobby was building model airplanes out of balsa wood and tissue paper.”
Twenty two-year-old Voris had never flown a plane when World War II broke out. “When the war clouds were rolling in, I was living in San Francisco,” he says. “I walked past a big recruitment sign that said, ‘Fly Navy,’ with a pilot looking off into the wild blue yonder standing on the wing of the plane.”
Voris passed a series of “tough” physicals and was called to duty in Oakland a month later. He was soon flying F-4-F Wildcats off the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise in the South Pacific.
“We were on the wrong end of the pig, I’ll tell you,” he says. “We lost the Hornet—one of our two carriers. The Navy was strong and prepared but we were caught with our knickers down..
“I shot down my first Japanese Zero at Guadalcanal. But I didn’t see one coming up behind me and I got shot up and knocked out of the sky. I didn’t bail out—they’ll shoot you out of your parachute and if you go into the water the sharks will eat you. I was full of shrapnel wounds and had a dead stick—I’d lost the engine—but I got back to Guadalcanal. I was a lucky boy.”
When his wounds healed, Voris was sent on another tour. After shooting down seven confirmed enemy planes, Voris was ordered back to shore duty and told to teach fighter tactics to pilots. Then he was asked to start the Navy demonstration team.
The intention of the team, he says, was to boost morale, represent the Navy at air shows, and “beat the Army air corps.”
The details of the group—including how one of the pilots came up with the name “Blue Angels” after seeing the name of a New York City nightclub—are outlined in Voris’ biography, due out this October. First Blue, written by Bob Wilcox and published by St. Martin’s Press, opens with one of the few tragedies the Blue Angels experienced.
“We were doing a Corpus Christi demo show for a midshipman orientation,” Voris relates. “We’d had to cancel the show the first day because it was too rough. We started the show with a parade pass at a 30-to-40-degree bank showing off the US Navy on the bottom of the wings. We were going 400 knots—that’s fast—200 feet in the air, when coming down for a pass we hit a massive [wind] shear and we collided. Number four in the slot came up beneath me and sheared off underneath the nose. He pulled up and ejected at low altitude. He was still in the seat when he hit the water.”
Voris blacked out and came to 25 feet in the air going 400 knots.
“Ground control was screaming at me, ‘Eject! Eject!’ but you have to be at least 2,000 feet up to eject. The seats weren’t very dependable and you could break your neck and back [crashing]. I had a jammed rudder and started to lose control. Anyway, I got down. It was the worst accident we ever had.”
Although the pilot who hit the water died, Voris says his wife, Thea, never worried about him. “She had the same philosophy I did—it will never happen to me.”
Despite risking his life for the air shows, and putting his body through seven-G force without G suits, Voris jokes about the hazardous duty pay he received.
“We got paid sooner than the other guys,” he says, “cause they expected you to die.” He smiles. “We always said, ‘you gotta kid about this stuff.’”
When asked why people get so excited watching the Blue Angels fly, he says it’s all part of the danger.
“It’s the precision and perceived daring and high risk that you see in the team,” he says. “We come down to ground level so people can see the types of maneuvers fighters do in combat. I think the public deserves to see what their taxes are paying for.”