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Fleetweek in San Francisco, California
A Week of Ships and Air Show Acrobatics Highlight San Francisco Bay Fleetweek
by Bernard Zee
Every year around the first week of October, San Francisco celebrates Fleetweek. The week of festivities includes the parade of ships, ship tours, air show acrobatics, and of course, the Blue Angels.
It is by no means a given that the Blue Angels (affectionately called the Blues) will be in town, but their appearance have been so regular, that most everyone expects them to be there! There is a practice show on Friday, and performances Saturday and Sunday afternoon. Check the airshow schedules first before making any major plans!
Some visitors luck on to Fleetweek, and happen to be at the right place at the right time. If you don't want to trust blind luck, a little advance planning is in order.
The Blues' showbox is situated in the San Francisco bay, between the Golden Gate Bridge, and Treasure Island. Show center is about a quarter mile into the bay from the tip of the municipal pier.
The municipal pier has the best seats in the house, but was closed to airshow attendees this year due to structural concerns. Only a very small number of people were allowed there - like show coordinators, and special VIPs and their guests. If they strengthen the pier and again allow the paying public access, that's the spot to be for the best view on land.
Most people spread out along Aquatic Park, Fort Mason, and Crissy Field. These are all very pleasant places to spend a beautiful afternoon from which to enjoy the airshow.
Those that would like to deviate from the beaten path would go to Alcatraz island. This takes more advanced planning, since you'd need to book your tour ticket in advance, and get on the island early. But from there, you'd have a unique view of the Blues - with downtown San Francisco as the backdrop. Many of the Blues' maneuvers take them very close to Alcatraz, or directly overhead. This affords an excellent close up of the F-18s singly and in formation, in addition to the teams' C-130 - Fat Albert.
Another unique vantage point would be on the Golden Gate Bridge itself. The Blues as well as other performers often make their turns close to the bridge, which affords the viewers a close up look at the banking aircraft.
One place to avoid would be Pier 39, that is unless you love to be among throngs of people, pushing you from all sides.
The most relaxing way to spend the afternoon watching the Blues would have to be on one of the tour boats out specifically for the Fleetweek airshow. These include the Hornblower cruises, the S.S. Jeremiah O'Brien (a Liberty Ship which is still seaworthy), and other chartered vessels. These get you out into the bay, and very close to the performers.
Normal Ferries continue to operate during the airshow, but you're really taking a chance with them. You might get an awesome closeup of the Blues, or not. They're just running their regular schedules going from point A to B.
The ultimate way to get close to the action is to be on your own personal watercraft! Of course, you must be familiar with all the airshow boat rules and restrictions, watch for a ton of other boaters, and know where you can and cannot linger. But this will get you as close as you possibly can to the action.
My favorite part of the Blues show is the high speed sneak past. This is where the lead solo pilot pops over the Golden Gate Bridge, gets really low to the deck, and jets past show center at a little under the speed of sound (700mph). Most everybody is looking the wrong way, at the formation of 4 doing a leisurely roll in the distance. There IS a reason it is called the sneak pass. If you see the formation of four start to do something nice far away, start frantically looking the other way!
At 700mph, he's covering over 3 football fields every second. From 2 miles out, he's just a dot. Within moments however, he's covered that distance and this humongous F-18 jet is upon you and then past! This all without so much as a hint of a whisper! An instant later, the sound energy reaches you. WHAM! It's very spooky and awesome at the same time!
As you can tell, this one pass is the highlight of Fleetweek for me. Yes, the Blues do this maneuver at other venues, but nowhere else is it more picturesque or more impressive.
A few more words of advice concerning Fleetweek. Give yourself plenty of time to find parking, get there EARLY, and don't be in a rush to be elsewhere afterwards! There are excellent car rental options in San Francisco. Renting an automobile would be one of the best ways to go about your tour.
There's lots of sights and things to do in downtown San Francisco. Take your time and enjoy it, the traffic isn't going anywhere!
View more of Bernard Zee's amazing photography.