Eighteen years have passed since Citadel graduate Greg McWherter saw Charleston. On Thursday, his view was from hundreds of feet up, tucked in the cockpit of his F/A-18 jet.

"The city looks beautiful from the air," he said after touching the ground.

Nearly two decades after graduating, the former cadet and soccer player returned as commander of the Navy's elite air demonstration team the Blue Angels, landing at the Charleston Air Force Base slightly late after some debris had to be cleared from the runway.

Once on the ground, he admitted that his dream was always to be a Navy pilot. But leading the Blue Angels was never on the radar. That changed after he became an instructor at the Navy's elite Top Gun fighter jet school.

McWherter, who is originally from Atlanta, kept getting calls that the Blue Angels was something he should try in order to expand his skills and horizons. Now he's serving a two-year stint as the group's commander, wearing jumpsuit patch 1.

During a brief interview Thursday before the team held dramatic practice runs over the city, McWherter credited much of his success to what he learned at

The Citadel where he lettered in soccer, graduating in 1990 with a degree in civil engineering.

Part of the reason he's never been back to Charleston was the Navy's schedule of deployments around the globe, he said. That means missed homecomings and other reunions. But he plans to return to campus today to speak with ROTC members and with parents visiting the school while their children decide whether to enroll.

"I don't know everything, but I know it worked for me," he said of his time at The Citadel.

McWherter took his aviation training at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Fla., after graduation. He said The Citadel taught him skills other college students didn't have, including the ins and outs of leadership.

The Angels do about eight "remote" shows like the two planned over Charleston Harbor this weekend, meaning they are away from an airfield. Some of the other "civilian" locales include San Francisco, Seattle and Traverse City, Mich.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said he had no qualms about McWherter and the rest of the air unit doing their intricate air moves over the city.

"They are the most skilled pilots in the world," he said this week. "I'm very confident of their skill and safety."

The planes this weekend will reach as high as 15,000 feet over the city and as low as 50 feet over the water.

During his chat Thursday, there were some questions McWherter couldn't answer, such as whether he'd snuck into Big John's Tavern as an underage cadet or even if he thought his plane's engine would be loud enough to spook Charleston's carriage animals, which won't be out this weekend anyway.

"We're no horse experts," he said.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551 or skropf@postandcourier.com.