Down East man becomes Blue Angel for a day

Posted Nov. 06, 2008, at 8:09 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 6 a.m.

MACHIAS, Maine — Phil Roberts of Marshfield is a hardworking Down Easter who holds down several jobs to make ends meet. He’s a reporter-photojournalist for the Down East Coastal Press in Cutler; a dispatcher for the Regional Communication Center in Machias; and owner of his own microbusiness, Machias Valley Imprint. He also is a volunteer firefighter.

When he is not shooting pictures or battling a blaze, 47-year-old Roberts is at his control center in Machias directing emergency calls to the proper agency.

Roberts also is an air show buff, who recently combined his love of photography with his love of planes by flying in a vintage bomber and with the famed Blue Angels.

In 1992, he attended his first show at the Brunswick Naval Air Station.

“I shot 12 rolls of film in one day,” he said. “That was a slide show at that time.”

He went back in 2005, 2007 and in September, and in the process, came to know some of the high-flying powers at Brunswick. In 2007, he created a Web site about air shows, and through it and his earlier acquaintances, such as Lt. Joel Castillo of BNAS, had the opportunity to fly in the vintage World War II North American B-25J bomber owned by Larry Kelley of Maryland.

Roberts and other media personnel arrived at the airfield early the morning of Sept. 5 and filled out the necessary paperwork before the crew briefed them on the flight.

The B-25, named the Panchito, is the same type of plane that Lt. Col. James Doolittle used to lead 16 aircraft on a daylight raid over Japan on April 18, 1942, Roberts said. The planes were launched from the carrier the USS Hornet.

“The original Panchito, which is named after the feisty rooster [Panchito Pistoles] in the Disney animated classic ‘The Three Caballeros,’ was with the 396th Squadron 41st Bomb Group, 7th Air Force flying numerous missions over southern Japan and eastern China,” Roberts added. In fact, the Panchito was scheduled for a bombing mission over Japan on the day the Japanese surrendered, he said.

Today, this version of Panchito flies to help get the message of the Disabled American Veterans out to the American public.

On Sept. 5, it was just three steps through the belly hatch and Roberts found himself inside the vintage bomber. Roberts said he and another reporter sat beneath the bubble where the gun turret is housed in a space no more than 6 feet wide.

“The plane’s been changed, so normally where the top gunner sits there is a bench seat underneath that gun, and that is where I and the other reporter sat. It was shoulder-to-shoulder,” he said. The propellers were spinning about 12 inches from their shoulders, the bomb bay was behind them, the entry hatch at their feet, and they were strapped into harnesses. They had been instructed on what not to touch.

“Anything red, stay away from,” he said with a grin.

The engines roared as soon as the pilot started them up. “It just shakes, bangs and rattles,” he said of the plane.

The pilot then released the brake and Roberts was pushed back into his seat during acceleration. Soon they were airborne. His camera was working overtime, snapping pictures while they flew over the airfield several times, then landed.

An excited Roberts was back on the ground, but little did he know there was more ahead.

John James, the public relations spokesman for the base, approached him. “He said, ‘Do you want to interview [one of the] Blue Angels?’ Well, you know the answer to that question,” Roberts said.

After the interview, Roberts learned he also was going to fly with the Blue Angels.

Roberts, along with several other people, was taken to where Fat Albert, a C-130 transport plane, was parked on the airfield. The plane that is flown by the Blue Angels out of Pensacola, Fla., is made up of an all U.S. Marine Corps crew, he said.

More releases were signed, there was another briefing, and everyone was handed airsickness bags.

More lay ahead as they were strapped in. Roberts was seated in one of the paratrooper seats, with a window nearby.

“Just waiting to go,” he said.

The pilot revved up the engine. This time the acceleration slammed Roberts hard into his seat.

“It would throw you to the back of the plane if you weren’t strapped in. That one could really move,” he said of the C-130.

When the plane was about 10 feet off the ground, the pilot pulled back on the yoke and the plane climbed at a sharp 30-degree angle. “It presses you right back into your seat. They say it’s 2 G’s; I say it was a little more. At 1,000 feet he levels off which was in a matter of seconds and then you go weightless,” he said.

The plane did a photo pass over the audience so airplane buffs could take pictures.

“Then we came back around at a high-speed pass which was 60 feet off the runway at 350 mph,” he said.

An assault landing was next. “This is for getting into combat areas and short runways,” he said. “The pilot came in at 1,500 feet, he dropped the nose to 25 degrees down to 100 feet. You go weightless the whole time. I was about 10 inches out of my chair, my lap belt holding me in place. At 100 feet, he leveled off and set down. He applied all the braking that thing has. They stopped the plane in less than 1,000 feet.”

No one had to use the air-sickness bags.

The plane taxied to the parking ramp. “It is one of the few planes that can back up, and just like a car, he brought it around and backed into his parking place,” he said.

Roberts put together a colorful picture book made up of his photographs about his air show experience titled “Great State of Maine Air Show 2008 — 65 Years of Aviation Excellence.” The book can be obtained at

The next step for Roberts? To break the sound barrier someday.

For now, Roberts is one of the few who to have flown with the Blue Angels. His dream flight.

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