The Virginian-Pilot
                             THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT 
              Copyright (c) 1996, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: Thursday, May 30, 1996                TAG: 9605300353
SECTION: FRONT                   PAGE: A1   EDITION: FINAL 
                                            LENGTH:   88 lines


In the finale of a Blue Angels' air show, all six pilots take their F/A-18 Hornets into a steep climb, roll their planes onto their backs and plummet earthward. They recover with only seconds to spare, then rocket straight toward each other.

When they cross paths, only yards between them, the audience, even as it cheers, lets out a collective breath of relief.

And so do the fliers.

The demands of piloting jets that fly with less than two feet between wing tips, or scream at each other at closing speeds of 1,000 miles per hour, are great.

The pressure on the flight leader to pull off the show for the glory of the Navy, while keeping everyone safe, is excruciating.

Cmdr. Donnie Cochran, who resigned Tuesday as leader of the Navy's precision flying team, was widely praised Wednesday for having the courage to recognize that he had lost his edge and had to act in the interest of safety.

``He's to be complimented,'' Cmdr. Kevin Wensing, a Navy spokesman, said. ``I think it's pretty noble of him to do that.''

In a precision flying team that has not lost a pilot since 1985, safety is priority number one.

``It was an extremely demanding decision on Commander Cochran's part,'' said retired Vice Admiral Anthony A. Less, former commander of the Atlantic Fleet Naval Air Force and a past Blue Angels' team leader.

``In your mind, there's no one that ever wants to acknowledge that his abilities are not just as good as the next guy. And he had to acknowledge the fact that his abilities in the air would not carry this organization through the entire year without an accident.

``It would be extremely difficult to admit that,'' said Less. ``But once he admits it, I would think it would be a real load off his shoulders.''

Cochran called off the Angels' performances at Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach last September because of what he believed were flaws in his flying. In particular, it was the show-ending ``low break cross'' maneuver that he felt was improperly lined up.

``There were certainly mistakes that were being made, not the type of mistakes that will end up, you know, four or five airplanes flying into the ground,'' Cochran said Wednesday at Pensacola Naval Air Station, where the squadron is based.

But strict safety parameters cannot be exceeded even in the slightest, he said.

``Once you start nibbling on the edges, occasionally extend those and start exceeding those limitations then you have to start questioning,'' he said.

``I have nothing to be ashamed of,'' he said. ``I can hold my head high with pride. I haven't crashed any airplanes, none of my pilots has crashed an airplane, none of my pilots have been hurt.''

Cochran, 42, said he based his decision strictly on his judgment of his professional performance, not a behind-the-scenes problem such as a family or health concern.

``The decision, when it came before me - the right stars aligned, you might say, and it was pretty evident to me that I needed to take some action to preclude some type of mishap from occurring,'' he said.

Cochran's resignation prompted the cancellation of at least the next three scheduled performances: June 1-2 in Chattanooga, Tenn., June 8-9 in South Weymouth, Mass., and June 15-16 in Oklahoma City. Other cancellations may follow, depending on how fast a replacement can be found, the Navy said.

Cochran, of Pelham, Ga., was the first and only black pilot to fly with the Blue Angels. He was with the aerobatic team from 1985 to 1988, and returned in 1994 to succeed Cmdr. Robert Stumpf.

The Blues begin training over the desert in El Centro, Calif., each January. With three new members in the six-member team each year, they perfect the complex show gradually, working their planes closer and closer together.

From April through November they put on two shows nearly every weekend, with practices most of the rest of each week.

The team leader flies the Number One plane in the famous diamond formation, chanting orders for each maneuver. He can't see the others in the formation and must make his climbs and rolls exactly the same every time.

``If you allow your mind to lose sight of what you're doing, you're prone to make mistakes,'' Cochran said in April. ``There's something happening all the time, and you have to be ahead of it in order to stay in your position and to put the aircraft where you need to put it.''

``Flying an air show is great. Flying a dangerous one is not,'' said Flight Surgeon Andrew Nelson, whose job is to keep the team alive and healthy.

There's no room for mistakes, although little ones, invisible to spectators on the ground, are made all the time.

``I was there. I made my share,'' former team leader Less said. ``It's a pressure job.'' MEMO: The Associated Press contributed to this report. ILLUSTRATION: Color photo