Gopher It: Life Upside Down at 900 mph

Blue Angels' Mark Swinger comes home

For his day job, Naval aviator Lt. Mark Swinger flies upside down at about 900 mph.

Known by the callsign "Gopher" to fellow pilots, Swinger flies souped-up F-18's for the U.S. Navy as part of its elite corps of Blue Angels demonstration pilots.

"You go from sitting still to on your back at 600 mph in about 30 seconds," Swinger said in an interview Monday at the Hotel Monaco in Old Town. "It is a rush."

Flying tricky aerial maneuvers for tens of thousands of spectators at a time could not have possibly been the destiny of the wiry, well-behaved kid who was born at the Fort Belvoir Army base and grew up in the Mount Vernon area.

Swinger said he got average grades in school and thought he'd grow up to become a sportscaster or a mild-mannered attorney, not a pedal-to-the-medal fighter pilot.

But that's exactly what Swinger will be doing this Thursday through Monday, as he does every weekend, first at the U.S. Naval Academy's 2009 graduation in Annapolis and then at an exhibition show at the Patuxent Naval Air Station in southern Maryland.

Swinger will hop into his F/A-18 Hornet high-performance jet and perform for the cadets and breathless onlookers such signature Blue Angel maneuvers as inverted rolls, Diamond Dirty Loops, minimum radius turns and the "Fat Albert," essentially a high performance takeoff followed by a parade pass, flat pass, head-on pass and short field assault landing.

"The opportunity to come to this job was a great honor," said Swinger, who's 31 and single. "But the real heroes are the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan fighting for our freedoms."

Swinger was born at the Fort Belvoir Army base near Mount Vernon, the son of Navy Captain Alan Swinger who was stationed for most of his career in San Diego, serving as a surface warfare officer.

"My dad was the Naval Academy graduate who didn't become a Naval aviator and I was the Navy pilot who didn't go to the Naval Academy," Swinger chuckles. "When I was a kid I was interested in flying, but really didn't have an interest in a military career."

However, the 1986 release of the blockbuster film "Top Gun," starring Tom Cruise as Lt. Pete "Maverick" Mitchell and Val Kilmer as Lt. Tom "Iceman" Kazanski, had an indelible impact on the future top Naval aviator, who one day would beat out thousands of other Navy candidates for a seat at the esteemed United States Navy Weapons School.

The then 8-year-old saw the movie with his father, and he said it began shifting his perceptions of the Navy as a desirable career.

"It's funny because when I go to schools these days and mention the movie or the Top Gun designation, I get a lot of blank stares," he chuckles. "Sometimes I forget that the movie came out 20 years ago."

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