Citing his own flying troubles, Cochran resigns
The skipper of the Navy's elite Blue Angels flight demonstration team bluntly blamed himself for the team's troubles May 28 and resigned the coveted post.
Calling it the most difficult decision of his career, Cmdr. Donnie L. Cochran, 42, stepped down because of personal "training difficulties" that he said were threatening the safety of his team's performances.
"It is with deep, personal regret that I announce today my resignation from the world's greatest flight demonstration team," said Cochran in Pensacola, Fla., the Blue Angels' home.
"Facing training difficulties and not desiring to impair the future viability of the team or its performance, I voluntarily decided to step down."
Cochran had commanded the elite unit since November 1994, and the team had been troubled for some time. Last September, Cochran grounded the Blue Angels and canceled two exhibitions because of concerns about the safety of the team in general -- and its skipper, specifically.
What's next for Cochran isn't clear. He was selected for promotion to captain by the O-6 board that convened this spring and awaits reassignment.
What's next for the Blue Angels, however, is a heavy schedule of training flights. Cochran's replacement is an experienced former team member and skipper: Capt. Gregory C. Wooldridge, commanding officer of Lemoore Naval Air Station, Calif.
Wooldridge, 49, served as flight leader and commanding officer of the Blue Angels during its 1991-92 season and for five months again in 1993. Before that he commanded the Dam-busters of Attack Squadron 22 from August 1989 to November 1990.
He is senior for the job, but this is the Blue Angels' 50th anniversary year and the Navy wanted an experienced skipper in the job -- quickly. The team has canceled shows and the busy stammer season is approaching.
It will take time for him and the team to get used to each other. The skipper of this special squadron is also the lead prior in the team's high-speed acrobatic maneuvers, so his skill as a pilot is particularly important to his leadership -- more so than with most squadron jobs.
Cochran's move was hailed as courageous by former Blue Angels pilots.
"I am continuously amazed by his intestinal fortitude," said a former Blue Angels pilot. "If I had to put up with the same kind of pressure he has, I would have cracked a long time ago."
Nevertheless, other fliers believe the two-week stand down in 1995 and Cochran's resignation last week indicate Cochran wasn't up to the job of leading the team. None agreed to say so on the record, however.
Former team members described Cochran as a solid but not outstanding pilot who was not of the caliber needed to excel in the extraordinary maneuvers for which the team is famous. During his 18-year Navy flying career, Cochran has amassed an impressive record. He has accumulated more than 4,630 flying hours and 888 carrier landings. He has done two tours with the Blue Angels -- first as a team member, from 1986- 89 --and more recently as skipper.
Before joining the team, Cochran flew F-14 Tomcats and commanded the Sundowners of Fighter Squadron 111.
Without disputing his successes, however, former Blue Angels team members suggested that race played too large a role in Cochran's selection for skipper.
Cochran was the first African-American pilot to fly with the Blue Angels during his first tour with the team from 1986-89, and when he returned as the team's skipper, he was the first to do that, too. The Navy, which has long been under pressure to boost the number of minorities in its officer corps and in key, high-visibility roles, used Cochran, these fliers assert.
Saying they support increased recruiting of minorities and have nothing against Cochran, they said they resent Navy leadership for relenting to political pressure and putting Cochran in a job for which he lacked the skills.
"There are certain jobs where you can't have political influence, where lives are at stake," said one former Blue Angels flier. "I think in this case the Navy blew it. Now we are paying the price and I thank God the cost didn't come in lives lost."
After Cochran's announcement, the Navy scrambled to find a replacement able to get the team in the air again with little delay.
While the next three shows in Chattanooga, Tenn., South Weymouth, Mass., and Oklahoma City, Okla., have been canceled, the Navy wants the team back in the air as soon as possible.
The team is supposed to celebrate its 50th anniversary at a Nov. 8- 9 air show in Pensacola this fall.
Immediate attention turned, then, to returning to command a recent, former Blue Angels skipper.
The most recent, however, was Cmdr. Bob Stumpf, who has been locked in a battle with the Navy and the Senate over his promotion to captain for more than a year. Stumpf faced legal proceedings while he led the Blue Angels for his conduct during Tailhook '91, before his tour with the team, and would have been an awkward choice to lead a team whose missions include recruiting and polishing the Navy's public image.
Stumpf, who led the team from November 1992 to November 1994 is currently attached to Commander Naval Fighter Wing-Atlantic and has been flying regularly.
Wooldridge, the Navy's choice for the job, last flew with the Blue Angels in 1993, while filling in for Stumpf. At the time, Stumpf was on temporary orders in Norfolk, where he was facing disciplinary hearings for his role at Tailhook. Stumpf was subsequently exonerated.
Wooldridge now commands Lemoore Naval Air Station, where a spokesman said he has retained his currency in the F/A-18 cockpit.
The only other experienced team skipper still in the fleet was Rear
Adm. Patrick D. Moneymaker, whose flag rank made him ineligible for the
job. Moneymaker is now head of command, control, computers and intelligence
for Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb.