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We're going to stay in California now to go well south of Hollywood. Fifteen miles from the border of Mexico, there you'll find the city of El Centro in the state's Imperial Valley. And it has something most hard-luck small towns don't: the Blue Angels. For 45 years, it's been the winter training home of the Navy's flight demonstration squadron.

Gloria Hillard reports that the Blues, as the locals call them, help this economically depressed town look up.


GLORIA HILLARD, BYLINE: It's called the hay bales, a dusty crop field a stone's throw from the runways of El Centro's Naval Air Facility. Lisa Gallinat has been watching the Blue Angels from here ever since she was a kid .

LISA GALLINAT: Now they're going to clear the field. They'll make sure there isn't any other crop dusters, any other planes in the air.

HILLARD: It's early morning and a dozen or so people are perched alongside the irrigation ditches. The Blue Angels' training schedule is like a daily weather report here. The town's alarm clock is the sound of F/A-18 Hornets firing up their engines.

GALLINAT: Jets one, two, three and four will take off in their diamond.



UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Ready (unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Go. Ready to go, boss.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We're clear for takeoff. Winds are calm. Take off now.

HILLARD: Twelve-year-old Josh Barnes' neck is craned upward, his hands dug deep in the pockets of his hoodie. He's been coming here since he was 3, he says, knows all the maneuvers.

JOSH BARNES: Let's see here: loops, breaks, cross. It's really thrilling and exciting to see them fly.

HILLARD: When he was Josh's age, that's what Brad Luckey thought. Today, at his home, the 57-year-old farmer is surrounded by Blue Angels memorabilia: model planes, photos, decades of memories.

BRAD LUCKEY: We had them at the house, you know, once a week. And in 1991, they afforded me the title of Honorary Blue Angel because I tried to make them part of my family. And that was their way of saying thanks.


MAYOR SEDALIA SANDERS: For three months, it is absolutely a soundtrack of the city.

HILLARD: Sedalia Sanders is the mayor of El Centro.

SANDERS: Do we get used to it? We look forward to it. It would be similar to what I would say Capistrano is like when they have the swallows come back. We're very excited when the Blues come back to town.

HILLARD: When their feet are on the ground, the Blue Angels will visit hospitals and schools and attend parties in their honor.

CAPTAIN GREG MCWHERTER: We actually spend more time in El Centro than we do in our home in Pensacola.

HILLARD: Captain Greg McWherter is the team's flight leader.

MCWHERTER: And we show up with a rather large footprint. We've got noisy aircraft. We've got a ton of sailors and Marines. We've got equipment, and we've got requirements. And you'd be amazed how welcome we are here.


HILLARD: And in recent years, the Blue Angels have been a welcome distraction for a town dealing with an unemployment rate that hovers around 27 percent. There's a shared sense of pride as they watch the team come together, perfecting those jaw-dropping maneuvers.


HILLARD: And when it's time for the Navy's flight demonstration squadron to take its show around the country, a little bit of the Imperial Valley goes with them.

GALLINAT: It's a good feeling. They've done a fine job. They're ready to go, and they're taking off.


HILLARD: And then it will be a long, hot and quiet summer around here.

For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.

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