Retired Navy Capt. Roy M. "Butch" Voris, 85, a World War II ace and first flight leader of the Navy's famed aerial acrobatic team the Blue Angels, died at his home in Monterey, Calif.
According to his son-in-law, Hank Nothhaft, a housekeeper found his body Aug. 9, although he may have died the day before. Nothhaft said that the cause of death was undetermined but that Capt. Voris had been in ill health for some time.
In 1946, Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, chief of naval operations, went looking for a crack Navy pilot to put together a flight demonstration team that would be a flashy recruiting tool, particularly in the nation's heartland, which had no naval air stations. Just as important, it could be a lure for additional defense dollars, because spending after the war was being ratcheted down. He picked Capt. Voris, who had shot down eight Japanese planes in the Pacific and was training flight instructors in Daytona Beach, Fla., at the time.
The Navy was the first of the military services to form an aerial team. "My goal was to beat the Army Air Corps," Capt. Voris recalled in a 1996 Associated Press interview.
He tapped a handful of fellow Navy fighter pilots, veterans of the Pacific war. Flying three Hellcats, the planes they had flown in their life-and-death skirmishes with the Japanese just a few years earlier, they trained in secret, as any mishap would reap the exact opposite of what Navy brass coveted. Capt. Voris told his biographer, Robert K. Wilcox, author of "First Blue: The Story of World War II Ace Butch Voris and the Creation of the Blue Angels," that they perfected their initial maneuvers over the Everglades "so that if anything happened, just the alligators would know."
The group took the name Blue Angels after a popular New York supper club that Capt. Voris had seen advertised in a magazine. "It just sounded right," he said.
The team put on its first show at an airfield in Jacksonville, Fla., in June 1946 and continued to perform across the country until the start of the Korean War in 1950, when team members were ordered to combat duty. The Blue Angels were officially recommissioned in October 1951, and Capt. Voris picked new members.
In the summer of 1952, at a Blue Angels show for Naval Academy midshipmen visiting Corpus Christi, Tex., two planes collided under dusty, windy conditions. One pilot was killed. Capt. Voris managed to land his plane, a Panther jet, despite losing almost all control of it and despite a tail that was nearly severed. The team was back in the air two weeks later.
"He was very technical, very smart about aeronautics," Nothhaft said. "Talking to him, you'd think he was an engineer. In fact, that's probably how he survived some of the mishaps."
Roy Marlin Voris was born in Los Angeles on Sept. 19, 1919, and grew up in Aptos, Calif., and later Santa Cruz, Calif. After graduating from high school in Santa Cruz and junior college in Salinas, Calif., he joined the Navy to learn to fly.
He told the Monterey County Herald in 2004 that, as a child, he was enthralled by pulp magazine stories he read about Eddie Rickenbacker and other World War I aces. He enlisted in 1941 after seeing a sandwich board advertisement on a San Francisco street that featured a handsome young pilot and the exhortation, "Fly Navy!" He was in flight school when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
A fighter pilot off the carriers Enterprise and Hornet, he was in the Pacific theater at probably the lowest point of the war, when the focus was on Europe and Pacific forces were outmanned and outgunned. He was in the thick of numerous battles, including Santa Cruz (near Guadalcanal), Tarawa and the first Battle of the Philippine Sea.
He was one of the pilots on the celebrated "mission into darkness" in 1944, in which air wing pilots took off near dusk on the trail of the Japanese fleet, knowing they would likely run out of fuel before they could return. Flying at night by dead reckoning after shooting down a Japanese Zero fighter, Capt. Voris barely made it back to his carrier.
A big man with blazing blue eyes and a shaved head, Capt. Voris was known for his even temper, his coolness under pressure and his sense of humor. "I got shot down once," he told the Monterey newspaper. "Those things happen. But I shot down eight of them, so I call it a net of seven."
He received three Distinguished Flying Crosses, a Purple Heart, 11 Air Medals and three Presidential Unit Citations.
In addition to his two tours of duty with the Blue Angels, Capt. Voris commanded Fighter Squadrons 13 and 191 and Attack Carrier Air Group 5.
After he retired from the Navy in 1963, he worked for Grumman Corp. in Bethpage, N.Y., for 10 years, helping to develop the Navy's F-14 Tomcat fighter and NASA's lunar explorer module. He joined NASA in 1973 and was the agency's spokesman during the Apollo moon missions. He lived in Alexandria before retiring to Monterey in 1985.
Capt. Voris's wife, Thea Voris, died in 2003.
Survivors include two daughters, Randie Nothhaft of Saratoga, Calif., and Jill Edwards of Ben Lomond, Calif.; two brothers; and three grandsons.
Nearly 60 years after the group's first performance, the Blue Angels, based in Pensacola, Fla., continue to perform before thousands of air enthusiasts yearly.
"Butch Voris's skill, concentration and dedication," author Wilcox said, "has carried through to this day."