Air Force Thunderbirds Take Part in 2011 Milwaukee Air and Water Show

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Ryan Kuntze
  • 128th Air Refueling Wing
The Milwaukee Air and Water Show, Wisconsin's largest free event, took place along the Lake Michigan shoreline this weekend, and the United States Air Force made its presence known through the Thunderbirds aerial demonstration team. The distinctively colored F-16C Falcons participated in afternoon displays of aircraft acrobatic maneuvers on Saturday, August 6, and Sunday, August 7.

The Thunderbirds arrived at the 128th Air Refueling Wing on Thursday, August 4, to prepare for their two-day show, and the team practiced their well-rehearsed display on Friday afternoon. Though local Airmen may have found the aerial display to be unique, this weekend's shows are two of 70 annual shows performed by the Thunderbirds, said Air Force Maj. Kristin Haley, Thunderbird #12 and the team's public affairs officer.

Most of the Thunderbirds' shows are performed in areas without a strong military presence, Haley said. "These people haven't met military members, so we're the face of the United States Air Force."

This year's buildup to the Milwaukee Air and Water Show included a recent six-week tour of eight European countries, including Turkey, Romania, Finland, and Bulgaria, Haley said. The team trained extensively from November through February--the off season and regular training time--while also learning two new maneuvers and familiarizing new pilots with the Thunderbirds program, she said.

The new maneuvers for this year's show are the bomb burst and the warrior loop, and the combined aerial displays reinforce the Thunderbirds' professionalism, pride, and precision, Haley said. Moreover, each air show gives the Thunderbirds opportunities to meet their three goals: recruiting, retention of current Airmen, and the inspiration of the next generation of Airmen, she said.

The team's maneuvers and abilities are supported by a highly capable maintenance crew, and a great deal of effort goes on behind the scenes, said Senior Master Sgt. Brian Spangler, the Thunderbirds' lead production superintendent. Each show lasts about 45 minutes, but one hour of flight time requires ten hours of maintenance, he said. The maintenance crews are unique because they stay with the team for three years and they must have prior training as maintainers before joining the Thunderbirds, Spangler said.

The precision and professionalism of the team's air show performance is evident in the pilots' handling of their aircraft. The Falcons fly eighteen inches apart at high speed, Haley said. Each of the pilots has served in a combat role, and they each have hundreds of hours of flight experience, she said. This experience is paramount because the pilots only serve with the Thunderbirds for two years; only the best of the best are allowed to join the team, she said.

"[People's] view of the military can be inspired by or based upon the Thunderbirds' presence at air shows," she said. "The pride, professionalism, and precision of the air demonstration team present the best image of the United States Air Force."

Moreover, Haley speaks from personal experience when she talks about the pilots' abilities and the demonstration's influence.

"A few weeks ago, I flew with Thunderbird #4 in the slot position--almost underneath the boss' aircraft--and they fly close," she said. "It was like I could reach out and touch the boss' aircraft."

The Thunderbirds took part in the 2009 Milwaukee Air and Water Show, and they have been performing air shows since their inception in 1953. The team's off season is spent at Nellis Air Force Base, Las Vegas, Nevada, which is their home station.