From NBVC to the Blue Angels

Lt. Cmdr. Michael Cheng, shown in his official portrait as Blue Angel No. 8.

Lt. Cmdr. Michael Cheng, shown in his official portrait as Blue Angel No. 8.

Lt. Cmdr. Michael Cheng, as the deputy air operations officer for Naval Base Ventura County, works the 2010 Air Show at Point Mugu.

Photo by Vance Vasquez/ NBVC Public Affairs

Lt. Cmdr. Michael Cheng, as the deputy air operations officer for Naval Base Ventura County, works the 2010 Air Show at Point Mugu.

The first time Michael Cheng saw the Blue Angels, he was a fifth-grader in San Francisco.

“Our teacher let us on the roof so we could see them,” he recalls. “We never saw the real action down by the wharf, but we could see them fly overhead — and of course we could hear them.

“I thought it was the coolest thing in the world.”

The next time Cheng sees the Blue Angels in San Francisco, he’ll be part of the team.

Cheng, now a 38-year-old lieutenant commander, found out July 13 that he will be serving with the Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron for the next two years.

He’s leaving his current position as deputy operations officer at Naval Base Ventura County and will report Aug. 2 to Naval Air Station Oceana, in Virginia. After a month training in the F-18, it’s on to Pensacola, Fla.

He’ll report to the team Sept. 10. As a “newbie,” he’ll travel with the Blue Angels for the rest of the show season, which includes four West Coast air shows later this year — including the Fleet Week performances in San Francisco Oct. 6 and 7 — before starting intense training with the team in El Centro at the start of 2013.

There are 16 officers assigned to the Blue Angels. Cheng is Blue Angel No. 8, the events coordinator. He’ll set up all the air shows in 2013, including the one at Naval Base Ventura County Sept. 28 and 29. During travel, he’ll fly in the cockpit behind No. 7, the narrator, and he’ll fly once or twice a week during practice, but he won’t fly in any of the air shows. His job is on the ground, backing up the narrator and giving him cues as to what’s happening in the air as the narrator focuses on the crowd.

Being in the Blue Angels has earned Cheng celebrity status, but he doesn’t see it that way.

“I’m honored and humbled that I get to do this,” he said.

Then he grins.

“I’m also really excited. Every day I get up and I can’t believe this is happening.”

The news hasn’t sunk in yet for Cheng’s parents, immigrants from Hong Kong who have never attended an air show.

“My mom is like, ‘So you’re not going on deployment, so that’s good, right?’ Slowly, they’re beginning to understand the concept.”

The biggest challenge now is the move to Pensacola. His wife, Jen, is expecting their second child in December; daughter Alyssa is almost 2.

“Jen is really excited and knows this is great for our family,” Cheng said. “It’s taken on a life of its own. We’re getting more congratulations on this than we did on the pregnancies.”

Although Cheng had wanted to fly since that day on the San Francisco elementary school rooftop, it took awhile for that dream to come true. He graduated from a San Francisco prep school, got his bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of California, Irvine, in 1996, then went to work in Long Beach as the assistant manager of a rental car company.

By 2000, he was back in San Francisco, working at his parents’ jewelry business and looking for a new future. He still wanted to fly, so he met with a Navy recruiter but didn’t hear back. He thought about enrolling in graduate school at the University of San Francisco and becoming a teacher. He applied to the FBI.

And then the Navy called back.

His decision to join the military was not a popular one with his parents or his two sisters.

“My father had come over from Hong Kong and became a doctor,” he said. “Doctor, lawyer — that’s what was expected. I broke the mold.”

He hesitates.

“I broke it really bad.”

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving 2000, he signed the papers and gave his oath. Then he reported to Officer Candidate School (OCS) in Pensacola.

“That taught me a lot about the military,” he said. “I learned about mental discipline, teamwork, attention to detail.”

His biggest eye-opener came when the drill sergeant ordered each candidate to rip up his bed and make it — military style — in 5 minutes. No one came close the first time, or the second or the third.

“He told us we’d never do it unless we worked together,” he recalled. “So four people each held one corner of a sheet and we tied it down and we got all of them done in time.

“I found that out about OCS: What they did to you — the mental games they played — there was a method to the madness.”

After OCS, Cheng stayed in Pensacola for flight school, learning about weather, aerodynamics and navigation before starting to fly a propeller plane, then a jet.

In a touch of irony, the FBI called shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, to accept his application.

Cheng was assigned to strike aircraft, flying S-3s. He was stationed in Naval Air Facility Atsugi, Japan, and flew off the USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63). He saw relatives in Hong Kong and visited Iwo Jima, an experience he called “awesome.”

In March of 2005, Cheng went to Whidbey Island, Wash., to transition from the S-3 to the Prowler. He deployed the next year in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, followed by another deployment in 2009 in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

He has been at NBVC since March of 2010.

It’s been awhile since he’s flown a jet, but Cheng isn’t concerned.

“It’s like riding a bike,” he said. “It all comes back to you.”

As part of his job as deputy operations officer, Cheng worked on the 2010 air show, which featured the Thunderbirds, the Air Force Flight Demonstration Squadron. Now, he’ll be on the other side.

As Blue Angel No. 8, he’ll visit every air show site in advance of the 2013 performances, which begin in March in El Centro. There’s roughly one a week after that, with a break around Easter and a break in August. The last show of the season will be in November in Pensacola, then it’s back to El Centro the following January.

“The time away from home will be significant,” he said, adding that he and his wife, married since 2006, are used to the long absences.

“The first year we were married I was gone eight months,” he said. “In the Navy, there’s no such thing as perfect timing.”

The Blue Angels get 40 to 50 applications each year. The deadline to apply was April 30, after which Cheng began the “rush process,” when applicants attend different air shows to meet the team — and to be assessed. Cheng traveled to El Centro; Tuscaloosa, Ala.; Kingsville, Texas; and Jones Beach, N.Y. He found out June 4 that he was one of 16 finalists.

In the meantime, he finished up his graduate studies with Norwich University, earning an MBA in finance.

Then came July 13.

“I know that I’m representing 500,000 Sailors and Marines,” he said. “There’s pressure behind this. I have to do a great job because I owe it to them.”

Every member of the Blue Angels team, he says, is a role model.

“I want to show kids and their families what the military does. I want to show the precision, the professionalism.”

So is he a celebrity?

“The closest I’ll ever get,” he says with a laugh.

© 2012 Ventura County Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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