What We Learned from the USAF Thunderbirds

by Brian Carhide

Photo: afthunderbirds.com

The United States Air Force Thunderbirds flight demonstration team has long been the epitome of aviation professionalism. Recently, when the Thunderbirds visited the Daytona Beach campus, we had the opportunity to meet and listen to the stories of those men and women whose precision flying is measured in inches and perfection is the only option!

For many pilots, including myself, the Thunderbird pilots are like movie stars. And like many successful professionals, the members of the Thunderbirds weren’t just handed this opportunity. They are a part of this team because of hard work, dedication, and passion. Many of those on the team have previous combat experience and typically over 8 years of experience in the U.S. Air Force prior to becoming a Thunderbird. Two members of the Thunderbird team are ERAU alumni. Achieving a position on the team requires a comprehensive application process which can include competing with 35 other applicants for 6 open slots on the team.

Some advice they offered to the students:

Maintenance Officer 11, or “Blue” as they called him, is an alumnus of the Daytona Beach campus, and he offered a key piece of advice — “Have a backup plan”. He was an Aeronautical Science student; however, he eventually discovered he had an issue with his vision, disqualifying him from flying as a Thunderbird pilot. Despite the disappointment, he maintained his loyalty to the Air Force and commitment to becoming a Thunderbird, a goal well accomplished.

Pilot number 5, an alumnus of the Prescott campus, attributed his journey to a coveted slot on the Thunderbirds as his ability to set mini goals. His initial goal was not to be a Thunderbird pilot. However, as he successfully accomplished each of the mini goals he set, the opportunity to be a Thunderbird pilot came into focus. He encouraged the audience not to get discouraged; if you stay loyal and continue to work toward the short-term goals, the long-term goals will happen. He also shared with the audience why the number 5 on his uniform is upside down. Pilots 5 and 6 are the solo pilots during the demonstration, and when any of the maneuvers performed by the solo pilots where one of them is inverted, its pilot number 5; hence, the upside down 5 on the uniform.

Pilot number 3, a female pilot on the current team, has begun her first year of the two-year rotation. With 9 years in the Air Force including combat experience, her poise and humble demeanor as a Thunderbird pilot made a positive impact on the students. Her story truly illustrated that the ability to succeed is dependent on the person and not a piece of paper. As with the other team members, pilot number 3 maintains a balance between family life and work.

The Thunderbird pilots display perfection in everything they do, from the sharp blue uniforms to the jaw-dropping performances, yet their level of humbleness and commitment is staggering. Your goal may not be a pilot for the USAF Thunderbirds, but if an individual conducts themselves as the Thunderbird team members have exhibited, the possibilities of success are endless.

Brian Carhide has more than 20 years of professional aviation experience. He spent many years as a professional pilot, including experience as a charter and airline pilot. Recently, he has been a leader in guiding young aviators in higher education at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.   

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