August 10, 2012

Two aviation alumni selected for elite Blue Angels

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Two Southern Illinois University Carbondale aviation alumni will be part of the famed Blue Angels flight demonstration team for the next two show seasons.

Navy Lt. Ryan Chamberlain, (Bloomington, Ill.), and Navy Lt. Cmdr. Declan Hartney (Limerick, Ireland) are part of the elite team that represents the U. S. Navy and the U. S. Marine Corps. Chamberlain will pilot an F/A-18 beginning as part of the 2013 flying team. Hartney is pre-selected as the maintenance officer for the team for the 2014 season.

Chamberlain said flying with the Blue Angels seemed like an unattainable dream. However, stepping out of expected paths is something he's become accustomed to over the years.

Chamberlain has been flying since he was 16, inspired, in part, by his brother. Flying isn't a family tradition for the Chamberlains, though -- it was just the two brothers who took to the skies. Chamberlain followed his brother to SIU Carbondale, where he entered the aviation flight program, switched to aviation management, and graduated in 2003. He became a pilot for Trans States Airlines, and flew for them for approximately two years.

He then joined the U. S. Navy, hoping to fly jets. Serving in the military wasn't part of the family heritage any more than flying was. Chamberlain discovered a whole other culture in the Navy, and along the way fulfilled his dream of flying jets. When the Blue Angels announced pilot openings, he applied. On the one hand, he said, it was like applying for any other job. On the other, it was a months-long process culminating in his selection as a finalist, a week with the Blue Angels, and finally the news that he will join the team in Pensacola, Fla., in the fall.

"It's an amazing opportunity and an honor to represent both the Navy and the Marines," he said. "I never thought it would be possible, it wasn't what I expected."

Chamberlain said the entire process of becoming a Navy pilot is a series of selections, based on personal pilot preferences and skill sets. He joined the Navy in April 2006, but wasn't assigned to a flight squadron until October 2009. He said all the various flying opportunities are highly selective, and humbly noted that it wasn't just that he wanted to and qualified to fly jets -- it was also that some pilots pursued other flying opportunities in the Navy.

Chamberlain said his decision to come to SIU Carbondale contributed to his success as a pilot.

"I came to SIU Carbondale partly because my brother had gone there in the aviation flight program, and so I knew something about the SIU experience. I liked the area -- the outdoors activities, the hiking and so on. Of course, too, the reputation of the program is so high nation-wide. There is no way I would be where I am without the aviation management faculty at SIU -- they are the best in the country."

Chamberlain is currently assigned to the Strike Fighter Squadron 14 (VFA-14) at Naval Air Station Lemoore, in California. He reports to Naval Air Station Pensacola in September, and begins his assignment with the Blue Angels in November as an F/A-18 demonstration pilot.

More than 40 Navy and Marine Corps officers apply to join the Blue Angels each year. Finalists attend air shows during the beginning of the show season to learn the team dynamics. The Blue Angels narrow the field to a small group of finalists who work with the team at the Pensacola home base.

Hartney, currently assigned to Naval Special Warfare Support Activity 1 at the Naval Amphibious Base Coronado, in California, returns to the Blue Angels as an officer after serving with the team as an enlisted man near the beginning of his military career.

Hartney graduated from SIU Carbondale in 2000 without ever having set foot on campus. He took advantage of the University's off-campus programs, working on his degree on two different military bases. He was actually a member of the Blue Angels maintenance team when he earned his degree.

While he jokes that his inspiration for joining the U.S. Navy was seeing "'Top Gun' a few too many times," Hartney says returning to the team as an officer is the result of and reward for 18 years of hard work.

"My whole goal in the Navy was to become a commissioned officer," he said. "This is the culmination of my career as an officer. I almost don’t know how to put it in words, it is such an honor for me."

Hartney said SIU Carbondale was his first exposure to the American education system. He'd hoped to attend his own commencement, but was touring with the Blue Angels as part of the maintenance crew at the time. He hopes to visit campus in the future.

"We are ecstatic about what this says for the program," David A. NewMyer, professor and chair of the aviation management and flight program, said.  "It speaks well for the format of the degrees, and in serving the students well. We are getting them right out into the industry and they are well-prepared to handle some of the more advanced management opportunities."