US Navy LCDR James “Rocket” Haley, 35, was a Blue Angels F-18 pilot (No. 2 aircraft) from 2019 to 2021, much of that time during the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, he was unable to compete in as many air shows as is customary for the elite flight team. But Haley was part of a joint US Navy and US Air Force effort to fly in formation over major cities during the pandemic to thank medical workers and inspire a shocked American public.
Like most Navy Airmen, Haley has seen the new movie “Top Gun: Maverick.” And, like most airmen, he is impressed. Here in Part 4 of our behind-the-scenes look at the film, we chat with the married father of two from his home in Virginia Beach, Va. Here are edited excerpts from a longer telephone conversation.
Jim Clash: What did you think of the two “Top Gun” films?
James “Rocket” Haley: Obviously, the former, as many Navy aviators will tell you, played a role in their entry into the Navy. I know watching it as a kid was monumental for me wanting to pursue a career in naval aviation. The second movie was long overdue. The release is a good time for the Navy, now with declining numbers.
Shock: Compare the two movies.
Haley: I joke that they’re the two greatest movies ever made, and I can’t decide which is #1. In the second, I really like the improvements in cinematography, the HD look. The exterior views of the F-18 are simply amazing. I also like the script, which completely surprised me. It’s a great film to take with the family, a bit rare these days.
Shock: What do you think of Tom Cruise as the lead actor?
Haley: I have never met him, but friends who have worked with him say he is dedicated to his craft and a hard worker. Plus, he’s a pilot, which gives him the ability to showcase what we do as airmen from a better perspective than most.
Shock: How close do you get to each other at Blue Angels air shows?
Haley: In the four-plane diamond, separated from the other two solo planes, we are within the advertised 18 inches of each other. We start further apart, but as we rehearse and get more familiar with our own jet and the pilots of other planes later in the season, we can get a little closer while still maintaining that safety margin. You get to know the other pilots so well that you can pick up their voice on the radio when they’re having a bad day [laughs]. It was such an honor to be part of this Blue Angels team. I feel super humble.
Shock: When you watch the scene where Navy CDR Frank Weisser takes Cruise through this narrow canyon in 2:15 to prove that the combat mission proposed by the film can be piloted, is it something you would try?
Haley: That’s a great question [laughs]. I do not know. I was in awe of this canyon scene. We absolutely train to fly low like that, and it’s a tactical ability of the [F-18] Super hornet. Now, the specifics of flying in this particular canyon might make me a little nervous. But with a good pre-flight terrain survey, most of us Navy aviators could fly something pretty close. Maybe not on the same level as Maverick was able to – and in such a timely fashion – because he’s the best of the best [laughs]. It would be a lot of fun to try, though. When you’re high up and maybe flying supersonic, it might not feel as fast because blue skies look like blue seas from 20,000 feet up. There is no frame of reference. But when you’re flying fast at low altitudes, you feel like you’re going a million miles an hour.
Shock: It is a job that involves a certain danger. How do you mitigate this risk?
Haley: I am married with two wonderful children – a five-year-old daughter and a two-year-old son – plus an incredibly strong woman who I am blessed to have leading our team. When you are young, before having children, you feel invincible. But after having children, life takes on a new gravity. My daughter jokingly says to me every day before I leave for work: “Dad, don’t forget to put on your helmet”, as I always tell her now that she is starting to ride a bike. But for your question, when I fly, I’m mission focused. There’s so much going on, whether it’s with the Blues or flying on other missions. This concentration does not allow your mind to wander too much about the inherent dangers. We also practice strict compliance with our NATOPS manual, which tells us how to operate the aircraft, our demonstration manual when we are on the Blue Angels, and our tactics manual, developed by the Top Gun school. We know them cold and follow them strictly, unlike the movie where Maverick takes his NATOPS manual and throws it in the trash. I think all the airmen laughed about it. We don’t do that [laughs]. Compliance with these standards and laser focus keep us inherently safe.
Shock: You have had the unusual opportunity during the pandemic to perform not only at air shows, but also in joint flyovers of US cities with the US Air Force Thunderbirds.
Haley: We just went to work to figure out how we could help. We zoomed in on Google Maps to find hospitals in densely populated areas, then planned our air routes to maximize exposure. What was really cool, besides the flight, was seeing the huge groups of people gathered in parks, streets, etc., all socially distanced, of course. I received several messages from friends and people I hadn’t spoken to in a long time, via Facebook or just by phone. I didn’t know there were so many health care workers. Several were nurses. They all said they were overwhelmed when we flew over. Some were even crying. For us, being able to thank them for what they were doing made us feel special. In the end, they had the most difficult tasks of all of us.
Shock: What’s next for you?
Haley: If it’s in the cards to continue in naval aviation, I’ll do it until I’m 80 [laughs]. Obviously, the timeline decreases as you get older – your eyesight, your muscles, whatever. It’s a youngster’s game. But most pilots have a fire in them. You want to go out and tackle that next task. I would love to have the opportunity to be a commander one day. I’m really grateful to be here [in Naval aviation]as they say among the Blues [Angels].
Shock: If you left the navy, would you consider flying for a commercial airline?
Haley: Absolutely. I have many friends in this profession. Ever since my first Cessna flight at 15, I’ve wanted to ride again and again. I’m going home now in a tiny Piper Cub. Friends remark that it must be boring in this compared to an F-18. I say, “No, not at all. For a pilot, having your feet in the air is special, whether it’s in a Piper Cub, Cessna, F-18 or, perhaps one day, a Boeing 787.