Punxsutawney native returns to area as Blue Angels crewman
When Zachery Bernat pays a visit to his family this weekend, he’ll really make an entrance.
The Punxsutawney native is part of the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels demonstration team, which will perform Saturday and Sunday at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Latrobe.
As crew chief, he is responsible for maintaining the multimillion-dollar aircraft and for the pilot’s safety.
“We perform engine turn-up operations, flight control and instrument checks. We set up the cockpits for the pilots. We ensure the pilots’ safety, their survival equipment and the overall appearance of the aircraft,” Bernat said.
“We strap pilots in, start up the aircraft and give them hand signals in sequence, so we’re actually a big part of the show, too.”
Bernat, 28, joined the Navy in 2005 after graduating from Punxsutawney Area High School, inspired by his sister, Amanda, who has been with the Coast Guard now for 14 years.
His twin brother, Jacob, lives in Punxsutawney.
“I joined the Navy to get away from home and to see what’s out there,” Bernat said. “My career just led me here.”
An aviation ordnanceman by rank, Bernat is on a three-year stint as crew chief for the famous fighter pilots.
“I work with all of the weapons systems of the F/A-18,” the planes that the Blue Angels fly. “I load all of the bombs and the missiles so the pilots can drop whatever ordnance they have.”
He found out about a year ago that he had made the team.
“It was awesome. I was stationed in Lemoore, Calif., and my mom was visiting me when I got the call.”
Once Bernat joined the team, he endured rigorous training for about four months.
“It’s an intensive program because there’s precious little time to learn a bunch of stuff,” he said. “It’s a good time to get the team together and focus and basically to become one.”
About 120 pilots and personnel are stationed in Pensacola, Fla., where the Blue Angels are based, he said, and about half of the crew goes to each air show.
This will be Bernat’s fourth show.
“It’s new, but it’s awesome. Especially seeing the kids’ reactions. That’s what makes this job even better.”
Preparations for a weekend air show start early in the week, he said.
“On Mondays we do all the maintenance and wash the aircraft and get ready for inspections. We get all of our gear ready. Typically on Tuesdays and Wednesdays we perform a practice demo here at the squadron” in Pensacola.
The team left Pensacola for Latrobe on Wednesday and today will meet with the media. The jets could be seen (and heard) Wednesday morning flying over Indiana.
A massive C-130 Hercules carries all of the gear, plus the personnel needed for the air show. Most of the crew goes ahead of the pilots, in the transport plane, and recovers the F/A-18s when they land, Bernat said.
Bernat’s family will be there for the show on Sunday. They’d be there Saturday, too, but that’s the day of Amanda’s wedding.
“It’s going to be a good time. They are excited,” he said.
It will be the first time Bernat’s parents, Donald and Carol Bernat, get to see their son at an air show.
“We are very excited,” said Carol Bernat, a seventh-grade teacher at Punxsutawney Area.
It will be a homecoming of sorts, too, for Bernat’s wife, Katie (Sawyer) Bernat, a 2003 graduate of Marion Center Area High School. The couple has two children, Aleyah and Ayden.'
IF YOU GO:
What: Westmoreland County Air Show
Where: Arnold Palmer Regional Airport, Latrobe
When: Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. (gates open at 8 a.m.) The Blue Angels perform at about 3 p.m.
Cost: Tickets are $16 at the gate or $14 if purchased in advance at Shop ‘n Save
More info: www.palmerairport.com