Wild blue yonder:
Norwich grad joins Blue Angels © Sept. 12, 2008, Norwich University Office of Communications

Maj. Chris Collins, Norwich Class of 97, begins service as a member of the 2009 Blue Angels squadron in September 2008.

photo courtesy of Joel Zwink, www.zwink.com Maj. Chris Collins, Norwich Class of 1997, begins service as a member of the 2009 Blue Angels squadron in September 2008.

When Maj. Chris Collins, ’97, was a sophomore at Norwich University, he went to see an air show in nearby Burlington, Vt. He was so impressed by the Blue Angels, the U.S. Navy’s flight demonstration team, he decided then and there he wanted to be a member. After talking with a recruiter at the show, he decided to commission into the Marines upon graduation. After years of service that include two tours of duty in Iraq, he is living his dream. Collins has been named a member of the 2009 Blue Angels squadron.

Collins, 33, of Darien, Conn., began the long journey before Norwich, the nation’s oldest private military college, located in Northfield, Vt., was even a thought in his mind. “I started flying when I was 12,” he said. “I originally wanted to fly [from] aircraft carriers in the Navy.”

I have taken a lot of what I learned about leadership and discipline and being professional from Norwich and used it not only in my career, but throughout the application process.

~ Maj. Chris Collins,
member of 2009 Blue Angels

After earning a business management degree, he went to military flight school in Pensacola, Fla., where he learned to fly the T-34, a single-engine trainer designed after World War II. After completion, he made a wish-list of the aircraft he wanted to fly. He got his first choice—jets, of course—but believes luck had a lot to do with it. “It is tough to get to fly jets in the Marine Corps,” he said. “Only 20 to 25 percent of Marine [pilots] fly jets, the rest fly helicopters. It was a lot of luck on my part and a little bit of skill.”

After seven years’ flying with the Marines, Collins applied to become a Blue Angels pilot—no easy task. With four years in the fleet squadron and his Iraq service, he had easily logged 1,250 hours of flight time required for applicants, but the process includes a written application, time spent at air shows and attendance at briefings with the current team. “Everyone asks when the flying tryout is, but there isn’t one,” said Collins. “They are really looking for someone they can be with for two years, and that will represent the Marines and Navy well.”

He noted that many of the precision formation maneuvers associated with the Blue Angels, performed in F/A-18 Hornet strike fighter jets, are also used when flying missions. “It is standard stuff that any pilot would do.”

After traveling to a few air shows and getting to know the team, Collins found himself in an applicant pool whittled down to just five people. That group went to Pensacola for finalists’ week in June 2008, which coincided with a Pensacola Beach air show. There, Collins attended social events, went through an interview process and got to know the team. After returning home, he was instructed to call the office at a specific time on a Sunday afternoon. “When the boss answered the phone, the whole team was in the office and welcomed me to the team on speaker phone,” Collins said. “I was speechless. It was pretty awesome.”

Now Collins is bracing for hard work, beginning with his return to Pensacola on Sept. 15, 2008. He will travel to air shows with the current team and shadow other pilots. In October, he will find out the position he will fly during his two years of service. After the last show of the season, on Nov. 15, the team will go to the Naval Air facility in El Centro, Calif., and begin winter training. Then he starts a rigorous, 35-week-per-year travel schedule.

And it all began with an air show while at Norwich. Collins said other parts of his college experience helped him make the long journey to his Blue Angels appointment. “I have taken a lot of what I learned about leadership and discipline and being professional from Norwich and used it not only in my career, but throughout the application process,” he said.

Much of that was instilled in Collins during his time with the Norwich drill team. “I had never drilled prior to Norwich, but was inspired to try it out after seeing the Marine Corps Silent Drill Team perform at a football game during half-time,” he said. “I’ve always been fascinated by the Silent Drill Team’s precision and discipline. I think the Blue Angels do a lot of the same things, just in the air.”

Laurette Brady, a professor in Norwich’s School of Business & Management, recalls being impressed by Collins’ discipline as a runner when she saw him training in an indoor track at the school’s Plumley Armory. Collins “ran like a deer,” and also challenged himself in his choice of a major, she said.

“It was a great class of economics majors,” said Brady, who taught him Intermediate Price Theory. “They were a really smart group.”

Now, instead of packing to go to Japan where he was on orders to arrive in mid-August, he is preparing for Florida, where his primary mission will be to recruit for the Navy and Marines. He is looking forward to it.

“I love seeing the team interact with children and adults and to see their reactions to the shows,” said Collins. “I want to do for someone what the Blue Angels did for me…They inspired me to get where I am today.”