Just over a decade after graduating from Duke, Navy Lt. Commander Cary Rickoff, Trinity ‘09, was zooming across the skies as the #6 pilot for the Blue Angels.
From Blue Devil to Blue Angel, Rickoff has always pursued whatever life path brought him the most joy, but he hasn’t shied away from hard work to get there.
“I grew up watching the Blue Angels, but never thought in a million years I’d be flying one,” Rickoff said.
Rickoff had a fun four years at the University, living life as what he called a “normal college student.” His academics were supplemented with classes and training through the Navy Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. For fun, his fraternity brothers were always there to tailgate with him at football games, or cheer alongside him in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“It was a regular college life with military traditions and customs intertwined,” Rickoff said.
“Don’t look too far into the future,” Rickoff says. “Look right in front of you, see what you’re enjoying doing and keep going with that.”
For the Atlanta native, Duke was close to home but out of Georgia, which met all of Rickoff’s requirements when applying to college. During the school year, he worked toward a degree in biological anthropology and anatomy, now called evolutionary anthropology. His summers were spent on a month of Naval training, and much of Rickoff’s free time was filled with flying.
Rickoff’s passion for aviation began early, and he earned his private pilot’s certificate in high school. This is also around the time that he learned of the ROTC program, and he decided to try it his first year as a “trial run.” He said that he doesn’t mind trying new things, testing them out and adapting as he goes.
“Don’t look too far into the future,” he said. “Look right in front of you, see what you’re enjoying doing and keep going with that.”
Rickoff has done his best to follow his own advice. He’s always had big goals in mind but has striven to live in the moment and not try to set the future in stone.
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Rickoff joined the Blue Angels in September 2018, after going through a process of interviews that he likened to a fraternity rush, along with several written applications.
Since being promoted to lieutenant commander in September 2019, Rickoff has accumulated more than 1,400 hours of flight time and 180 landings on an aircraft carrier. He has been decorated with a Strike Flight Air Medal and three Achievement Medals from the Navy and Marine Corps, along with other personal awards.
In May, Rickoff and the Blue Angels worked with the Air Force Thunderbirds to conduct multi-city flyovers to honor first responders and other essential medical workers for their work on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, which the teams had time for after many of the stops along their normal tour season were canceled.
Rickoff called it a “surreal” experience, one that was “very different and very rewarding.”
From a piloting perspective, the coordinated flyover brought challenges due to the extensive planning required to work with the other team, including many hours of flight and ground practice.
Since being promoted to lieutenant commander in September 2019, Rickoff has accumulated more than 1,400 hours of flight time and 180 landings on an aircraft carrier.
“We have now flown with the Thunderbirds more than any other Blue Angel team in the past by far,” Rickoff said.
This difficult flight coordination also came at the height of the quarantine in response to the pandemic, causing challenges on the ground as well. The teams planned not to stop at any of their flyover destinations, which meant they had to coordinate the two teams—with seven aircraft each—as well as four fuel tankers. In the end, the operation was not only a success, but also incredibly rewarding, Rickoff said.
“It was a great way to extend our training and to give a shout-out to everyone out there who was working hard on the front lines and were stuck inside. It was very cool to fly through some of the biggest cities—New York City, Washington, Philadelphia—and every once in a while catch a glimpse down there and see people waving at us,” Rickoff said.
Rickoff recently had to say goodbye to an old friend in the squadron. Nov. 4 marked the final flight of the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 A/B/C/D “Legacy” Hornet jet as the team transitioned to the Boeing F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet. The change was bittersweet for Rickoff.
“I was born in 1986, and that’s when the Hornet was introduced for the Blue Angels. All I’ve ever known is the Blue Angels flying the Hornets. It’s going to be weird to look up and see the Super Hornet now,” he said.
Rickoff originally trained in the Super Hornet in April 2012, so he was set to go after a quick requalification in Virginia Beach, Va. Although the larger Super Hornet comes with more power and acceleration, Rickoff looks back fondly on watching the Blue Angels Legacy Hornets fly by when visiting his father’s hometown of Pensacola, Fla., where he is now stationed.
The Blue Angels’ 2021 season has been planned out since before the pandemic began, and while many plans are still up in the air, Rickoff said that the team is ready to goi ahead with the shows if the venues are open and the Department of Defense allows it.
The team was frozen this year, so the crew didn’t rotate. Because of this, Rickoff will spend two more years as a Blue Angels naval aviator. After that, he is committed to another two years in the Navy, which he said he will likely spend as a department head or an instructor.
From there, Rickoff has no concrete plans, but his Duke degree sets him up for a variety of careers. “I’ll look at what I’m doing and keep doing it as long as I’m enjoying it,” he said.
He reminisced about his time on campus, reminding current students to enjoy their time while they can. Despite all the changes since he left campus in 2009, Rickoff is still impressed by the unchanging Abele Quad.
“It’s always a little bit of home when you go back.”
Maybe someday, Rickoff joked, he will be able to fly over the Duke Chapel.