The Blue Angels Are Roaring (and Polluting) over San Francisco

October 8th, 2022 - by Claire Hao / San Francisco Chronicle

The Blue Angels Are Roaring over San Francisco.
What Is the Cost to Taxpayers and the Environment?

Claire Hao / San Francisco Chronicle

(October 6, 2022) — The US Navy’s famous Blue Angels are roaring over San Francisco again as they prepare to headline the city’s annual Fleet Week Air Show this weekend. First held in 1981, the event has become a fall tradition in the city, despite a one-year pandemic hiatus in 2020.

The Blue Angels team conducts air shows across the country as a public awareness and recruiting tool for the Navy. (The public can also tour visiting Navy ships during Fleet Week.) The show — which also includes performances by other aircraft — is free for public viewing, but that doesn’t mean it’s without cost.

What Is the Cost of the Blue Angels?
As part of the Navy, the Blue Angels are funded through taxes. The group’s annual operating cost is roughly $36 million, which covers all shows and practices for the year, according to Lieutenant Chelsea Dietlin, a Blue Angels public affairs officer.

Operating the planes is expensive. The Blue Angels fly F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets — the same type of planes featured in “Top Gun: Maverick.” Also included in the show is a Marine Corps C-130 Hercules aircraft, “affectionately known as ‘Fat Albert,’” according to the Blue Angels FAQ page.

Depending on the model, a single F/A-18 fighter jet costs the Department of Defense approximately $17,838 to $21,288 to fly per hour, according to the US Department of Defense’s fiscal year 2022 reimbursement rates (a figure that includes estimates of maintenance, operations and crew costs). “Fat Albert” costs $8,609 per hour to fly, according to the reimbursement rates.

Civilian sponsors of air shows pay a $6,000 fee per show day, Dietlin said. The Blue Angels will perform three shows at the Fleet Week Air Show, one each between 12:30 p.m and 4 p.m. on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, putting the total fee at $18,000.

What Is the Environmental Impact?
Each jet burns roughly 1,600 gallons of fuel per demonstration, Dietlin said. So the six Super Hornets together would burn a total of approximately 9,600 total gallons per show. Over the course of the weekend, that equals approximately 38,400 gallons of jet fuel burned during the three shows and the Blue Angels’ Thursday practice.

This figure — which does not include the total for Fat Albert, or the fuel burned by additional air show performers such as the Coast Guard or United Airlines — means that the Blue Angels jets will emit approximately 825,600 pounds of climate-warming carbon dioxide at Fleet Week (one gallon of jet fuel produces 21.5 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions, according to the US Energy Information Administration). That’s about the same amount of carbon dioxide as driving from San Francisco to Atlanta 375 times in an average car.

That may seem like a lot, but it should be put into perspective on what’s emitted on a daily basis in a major metropolitan area, according to Keith Bein, a researcher with the UC Davis Air Quality Research Center. It’s “a lot smaller than the thousands of vehicles that are constantly driving around the city of San Francisco,” he said.

The Bay Area as a whole emitted 93 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2015, according to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. Compared to that, even on a daily basis, the emissions by the Blue Angels is a tiny fraction.

Another point of comparison: A Boeing 737 burns about 750 gallons of fuel per hour, according to USA Today. So a typical round-trip 737 flight between San Francisco and the East Coast will burn, very roughly, about as much fuel as all of the Blue Angels jets combined during a single performance.

Besides carbon dioxide, airplane engines emit water vapor, carbon monoxide, sulfur gases, soot and metal particles and other particles formed by the combustion of jet fuel during flight, according to a US Environmental Protection Agency handout.

“It’s not healthy by any stretch of the imagination to breathe emissions from a jet,” Bein said. But the jet planes’ emissions will mostly remain at high altitudes, so people won’t smell or breathe most of it, Bein said.

Bein’s dad was an Air Force pilot, and he remembers being thrilled by air shows as a kid. But as an environmental scientist, Bein said he had mixed feelings about the Blue Angels.

“They’re emitting carbon dioxide, they’re using jet fuel and they’re polluting the atmosphere. So what do we get in return for that? I don’t know,” he said.

What Is the White Trail Behind the Planes?
The white emissions trailing the planes are known as contrails, short for condensation trails. They are produced — typically at high altitude — as warm jet engine exhaust meets cold temperatures. The water vapor in the engine exhaust condenses into line-shaped clouds that spectators may see. (Similarly, a car exhaust will seem misty on a cold day.)

The Blue Angels use a biodegradable, paraffin-based oil — “smoke oil” — to enhance visibility, said Fleet Week air boss Donna Flynn. This oil is pumped into the exhaust nozzles of the plane and instantly forms smoke, according to the Blue Angels FAQ page.

The “smoke oil” makes an aircraft’s trail look puffy and white at any temperature, Flynn said. It’s meant to help spectators follow the planes’ flight paths and reinforce safety for the Blue Angel pilots.

“(The pilots) use it for reference to see each other. As the solos are coming at each other, it’s much easier for them to find each other if they have the smoke on,” Flynn said.

Claire Hao is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. 
Chronicle staff writer Kate Galbraith contributed to this report.

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.