From NMMI cadet to Blue Angel pilot No. 4

February 13, 2011 • Local News, News

Lt. Robert Kurrle (Courtesy Photo)

Long before Lt. Robert Kurrle became a Navy Blue Angel, he first had to learn to salute.

It was at New Mexico Military Institute that the then-18-year-old aspiring aviator received the first military training in his career, including “how to salute, how to march and how to follow orders.”

“I would not trade going to NMMI for anything in the world,” Kurrle said by phone from Naval Air Facility El Centro, Calif., where the Blue Angels annual winter training takes place before the show season starts in mid-March. “It taught me discipline, good study habits, time management and how to operate and perform under stress.”

In the fall of 1997, the new cadet attended NMMI through the Naval Academy Foundation, a program for a select number of Annapolis applicants that requires a year of preparatory school before entering the Academy. NMMI is one of the colleges across the country that hosts the program.

Fresh out of high school, the North Carolina native began his first semester like all the others—  a RAT, or Recruit-At-Training. RATs receive basic training daily and are inducted into the strictly regimented military [auth] framework of the school.

Being a RAT wasn’t always easy, Kurrle remembers, nor was making the transition from civilian to cadet.

“No one enjoys being yelled at,” he said laughing. “And it takes away a lot of your freedoms and liberties. It is a military school.”

But playing tennis for the school under Coach Gene Hardman and having a close-knit group of friends helped, he said. One of his closest friends was fellow RAT Mark Garner, who also hailed from North Carolina, about 20 minutes away from Kurrle’s hometown of Statesville.

“Here we are, two North Carolina boys, and we’re out in Roswell, New Mexico,” Kurrle chuckled. “We became friends very quickly.”

The two remained close friends until the summer of 2009, when Capt. Garner was killed in action in Afghanistan. An improvised explosive device struck his M-115 Humvee, killing him and another passenger.

“My best memory are the friendships I formed there with my RAT buddies, in the fall of ’97,” Kurrle said. “We were all RATS together, running around. I left there with a lot of good friends.”

After graduation, Kurrle attended the Naval Academy, where he played tennis, and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering in 2002. He was commissioned as an ensign in the U.S. Navy.

In 2009, he was invited to join the Blue Angels, the Navy’s flying aerobatic team that’s known world over for performing awe-inspiring stunts at near sound-breaking speed.

“I never thought in a million years I would end up with the Blue Angels,” Kurrle said. “It’s a dream come true.”

(Official U.S. Navy Photo)

One of only six flying pilots, Kurrle flew as the “Left Wing” in 2010. This year, he’s Blue Angel No. 4, a second-year senior position with more responsibility. Angels only fly for about two or three years, he said, so there is usually a 50 percent turnover per year.

Kurrle is the demonstration safety officer as his slot position in formation allows him better “situational awareness” and a wider view of the other Blues that fly 300 to 350 miles per hour only inches beside his canopy.

“We’ll get as close to 18 inches apart during some of our maneuvers,” Kurrle said, noting that it requires precision and trust in the other pilots to form the Blue Angels’ Diamond Formation. “It’s really impressive to see.”

While Blue Angels one through four, which make up the “Diamond,” perform at lower speeds and tight formations during an air show, the “solos,” Blue Angels five and six, show off the “maximum performace capabilities” of the F/A-18 Hornet at sound-breaking speeds.

Kurrle said his favorite manuever, the Loop Break Cross, comes at the end of a show.

“We have all six airplanes back together, it’s really fun,” he said. “You’re all back together in formation, then you break off in different directions, then cross in the center at the same time.”

The Blues hold practice sessions during the winter at least twice a day, six days a week. They average 70 shows in 35 different states, and Kurrle said they will be coming to El Paso in October.

He said he hasn’t been back to Roswell since graduating NMMI, but only because he hasn’t been afforded the opportunity. He says he remembers NMMI fondly and credits the school for allowing him to enter the Naval Academy.

He said, “If I had to do it over again, I would do the exact same thing.”

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