“Once a Blue, always a Blue,” members of the Blue Angels proudly proclaim.
Never was that saying truer than for the first Blue Angel, Navy Capt. Roy M. “Butch” Voris, who was selected in 1946 to lead the newly created Navy flight exhibition team. Voris was involved with the team until his death Aug. 10, 2005, and the 2006 show season is dedicated to his memory.
Voris served in the Navy for 22 years and retired in 1963 as a captain.
Known for his coolness in the cockpit, Voris cheated death many times, including a 1952 midair collision during a Blue Angels demonstration in Corpus Christi, Texas. One Blue Angel was killed, but Voris miraculously brought his severely damaged plane to the ground.
Though there were some tragedies, most of the times were good. The nation quickly embraced Voris and the team of skilled pilots performing the most dangerous stunts ever seen.
When the team was formed, Voris was a 25-year-old combat ace and flight instructor at Jacksonville Naval Air Station. He was given little direction about what was expected of him—only that then Chief of Naval Operations Chester W. Nimitz wanted a team to perform at air shows and other public events and serve as a Navy recruiting tool.
He set about choosing the exhibition aircraft—the Grumman F6F Hellcat—and his teammates. Because he knew the team would be completing dangerous stunts and traveling often, Voris wanted single men with combat experience.
Al Taddeo was one of the original Blues chosen.
“It was a very plum assignment, believe me,” said Taddeo, 87, of Newport Coast, Calif. “All carrier pilots, I don’t care who they were at that time, wanted to get in on the program. Literally thousands of aviators wanted to be on the team.”
Blue Angels beginning
“They didn’t know what to expect from us,” Taddeo recalled, remembering the spectators and air show organizers during the team’s first public performance June 15, 1946, at Craig Field in Jacksonville. “We put on the show that we had practiced and unbeknownst to us, we were a tremendous hit. The announcers really went wild over what we were doing.”
The team only had been practicing a month. At the time, three planes in a slow roll formation close to the ground was an incredibly dangerous stunt.
“It was a very foolhardy stunt you might say. But we thought we could do it, and we did it,” Taddeo said.
They practiced what Voris preached: “Get it up, get it on and get it down.”
Raleigh “Dusty” Rhodes, 88, of San Jose, Calif., the third team leader of the Blue Angels remembers the first time he saw the Blue Angels in 1946. He knew Voris from the war but the two hadn’t seen each other in several years.
He immediately wanted to join the team and was selected the following year.
“We were pioneers at that time,” he said. “No one else was doing anything like this.” The efforts of Voris and early team members forged the way for the Blue Angels of today, laying the foundation for the next 60 years and the development of a treasured Navy symbol of honor and dedication.
Documenting the ‘First Blue’
Voris never looked for recognition or praise for his role in creating the Blue Angels. But for years, his son-in-law, Hank Nothhaft, has wanted to make sure Voris’ place in history would be sealed.
He had to persuade Voris several years before his death to sit down with author Robert K. Wilcox. The result was “First Blue,” a 352 page book that details Voris’ military career and the formation of the flying squadron.
“No one had really documented the detailed story of how humble and how chaotic and how dramatic the founding of the Blue Angels was, “Nothhaft said. “Butch never imagined in his wildest dreams that the team would reach the heights that it has. He was very proud of it. He kept in touch with the team through the years. He kept his hand in right up until the end,” he said.
Nothhaft said Voris was an entertaining speaker who liked to make fun of himself in his stories.
“His stories had people rolling on the floor,” Nothhaft said.
Nothhaft’s wife Randie, Voris’ younger daughter, was born after her father served his second stint with the Blue Angels in 1952. He returned to reform he team after it had served in the Korea Conflict.
For a man who already had spent more than a decade in the military, adjusting to life with three women—wife Thea and daughters Jill and Randie—couldn’t have been easy, Randie Nothhaft said.
“He was very strict,” she said. “I always thought growing up that if he had boys I would feel sorry for them because he would have made them undergo constant inspections. He was just that kind of character.”
Death of an aviation icon
Watching him deteriorate near the end of his life was difficult. He was still alert, his mind sharp as ever, but he was declining physically and was likely in a lot of pain, Randie Nothhaft said. Doctors told her Voris died of congestive heart disease.
After his death, it became even clearer to her that her father had made history.
“He touched a lot of people,” she said. “I never knew it until he passed away how many people whose lives he had touched.”
Blue Angels team members remember Voris as a determined leader who pushed for perfection, but was always “one of the gang.”
“He was very easy to work with,” Taddeo said. “I think he was the best qualified man at the time to be the leader of that team.”
Voris influences the Blue Angels to this day. Members who never knew him are taught the principles of team work, safety and perfection he preached 60 years ago.
Writes Blue Angel Commanding Officer Stephen R. Foley in the team’s 2006 yearbook: “He is still very much alive in our squadron. He was a true American patriot. A leader. A visionary. A legend. Our hero. His contributions to our naval service were epic.”
The Naval career of Ro M. “Butch” Voris spanned 22 years. He flew everything from biplanes to jets, many of them in combat. His status as an ace was earned in the early years of World War II when he shot down eight Japanese fighter planes.
Flying from the carriers USS Enterprise and USS Hornet, he took part in the battles of Santa Cruz, Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Central Pacific Islands, Philippine Sea, the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot, and the “Mission into Darkness’ in which air wing pilots had taken off near dusk to pursue the Japanese fleet knowing many probably wouldn’t have enough gas to return.
In 1952, Voris was brought back to reform the Blue Angels after the team’s stint as a fighter squadron in the Korean conflict. Voris was a two-time Blue Angel flight leader, the skipper of Fighter Squadrons VF 113 and 191, and commanding officer of Carrier Air Group 5.
Post Navy career
After retiring from the Navy in 1963, he went to work as an executive at Grumman Aircraft Corp. in Bethpage, N.Y., where he had been instrumental in the early development of the F-14 Tomcat. He ended his aviation career as a spokesman for NASA during the momentous 1970 moon shots.
Voris was awarded three Distinguished Flying Crosses, 11 air medals, three Presidential Unit Citations, and a Purple Heart when he was almost killed by a Japanese Zero that shot his cockpit as he defended Guadalcanal.
Voris was inducted into the Naval Aviation Hall of Fame and the International Air Show Hall of Fame. An aircraft bearing his name is outside Jacksonville Naval Air Station, and the passenger terminal at the station is named for him. In 1993, he was honored by the Air Force in a “Gathering of Eagles” ceremony as one of 20 pilots worldwide who had made significant contributions to aviation.
Died in 2005
Voris died Aug. 10, 2005, at his home in Monterey, Calif. Voris was preceded in death by his wife Thea.