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Blue Angel proud to call Whidbey his home

Estimating that he’s on the road for approximately 300 days a year, Nate Barton could be excused if he didn’t remember where to call home.

Since he zipped his blue flight suit as a member of the U.S. Navy’s storied Blue Angels two years ago, he moved his family to Pensacola, Fla., spent the past two winters in El Centro., Calif., then embarked on his first full air show season this year, criss-crossing the country numerous times.

But there’s no confusion on Barton’s part when it comes to declaring home. He touched down on Whidbey Island this week to prepare for the Boeing Seafair Air Show in Seattle — the 21st show he’s performed in, covering 18 states, since March.

Whidbey, he said, is home.

“Coming back here is really special for myself and my family,” said Barton, a lieutenant commander who’s spent seven of his 12 years in the Navy based at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station. “This show is one that I’ve been looking forward to the most by a long shot.

“It’s nice to be back in our own backyard.”

Barton, 34, from Hummelstown, Pa., is one of the six demonstration pilots who perform aerobatic maneuvers in F/A-18 Hornets for the elite unit that represents the best and brightest of the Navy and Marine Corps.

He handles the No. 3 jet as the Left Wing, which means he spends a lot of time in tight formations staring to his right at the wingtip of the team leader, or “Boss,” as he’s called.

Amber Lynn Daniel, public affairs officer with the Blue Angels, calls Barton the “most photogenic” of the 16 Blue Angels, an indication of how much he enjoys representing the flight demonstration squadron, which is a key recruiting tool for the Navy and Marines.

Serving as an inspiration to others, representing his branch of military service and embodying the culture of excellence that comes with being a Blue Angel are all part of what Barton loves about what he’s doing.

“The most enjoyable part isn’t the flying,” Barton said. “It’s getting to interact with all of the people all around the country. It’s being able to inspire little kids and inspire a culture of excellence.”

Barton’s inspiration has reached far beyond young children.

On Whidbey, he’s a source of pride to the electronic attack squadron community and a familiar figure who reached a lofty goal most only dream about.

Lots of Navy and Marine pilots who’ve flown more than 1,250 tactical jet hours and are carrier-qualified apply to become a Blue Angel, then undergo the scrutiny of team members themselves during “rushes” at air shows in an attempt to gain the required unanimous approval.

Nate Barton made it.

“In my opinion, every naval aviator out there at some point in their career aspires to do that,” said Kevin Inabnit, a training officer at VAQ-129 at NAS Whidbey who served as a flight instructor with Barton in that squadron before he left for the Blue Angels.

Inabnit said a large contingent from NAS Whidbey is planning to attend the Seafair air show, which started Friday, largely because of Barton’s participation. The Blue Angels perform at 1:45 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday.

Barton is the first pilot from the electronic attack community to fly with the Blue Angels, Inabnit said.

“Everybody is just so proud of him and how he’s representing the VAQ community and Whidbey Island in general,” Inabnit said.

This is Barton’s first Seafair appearance after all, but two shows were canceled last year because of sequestration. His first year with the squadron was spent as an observer.

He is joined on the team by Lt. Cmdr. Michael Cheng, another product of the electronic attack community at NAS Whidbey. Cheng is a naval flight officer who serves as the events coordinator with the Blue Angels.

Barton was met by his wife Janelle and their children Connor, 10, Cooper, 8, and Jennie-Flore, 3, at a friend’s house in Anacortes Tuesday and spent part of the week reacquainting himself with old friends around NAS Whidbey and other spots before gearing up for the air show.

It was a joyful reunion with his family on familiar turf during a hectic time of year.

“We are looking forward to going to eat at Christopher’s in Coupeville,” Barton said Tuesday. “That’s our favorite restaurant here. And 1-2-3 Thai. China City. We talk about that all the time.”

The Bartons own a home in Coupeville, and he is cleared to return to Whidbey Island after he completes his stint with the Blue Angels. He got a year’s extension with the Blue Angels, meaning he won’t be back to work at NAS Whidbey until December of 2015.

At that time, he’ll become a department head with VAQ-137.

Barton reported to VAQ-129 on Whidbey for initial training in the EA-6B Prowler in 2005, then transitioned to VAQ-135, where he served as a landing signals officer, often working from the ground at Outlying Landing Field in Coupeville.

“I spent many, many long nights along there at OLF trying to train new pilots,” he said. “Our house is there right under the landing pattern.”

Before he returns full-time to Whidbey, Barton has many more tactical maneuvers to perform as a Blue Angel over the next 16 months. And many more people to inspire.

Scott Hardy, commanding officer at VAQ-136 and Barton’s close friend, said about 100 people showed up to visit with Barton on base Wednesday. He had a short speaking engagement at the officer’s club attended by several old friends.

“I thought it was a great reception,” Inabnit said. “What I thought was neat is there were so many young junior officers. It was cool to watch their faces. I think they were pretty inspired by him.”

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