In a small conference room just off the runway at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, some of the US Air Force’s most elite F-16 pilots gathered. They talk casually to each other, snack on granola bars and fruit; Water bottles and papers litter the table beneath laptops and tablets.
The 12-man team may seem relaxed despite the dangerous maneuvers they’ve performed, but their focus on the task ahead is clear.
The Thunderbird is the Air Force’s premier demonstration team, performing at numerous air shows across the country each year. This year marks the team’s 70th anniversary – it was founded in 1953, six years after the Air Force separated from the Army and became its own service. The intention, according to the current commander of the team and Thunderbird #1 Lt. Col. Justin Elliott – known to his teammates as “one” or “boss” – is “connecting the American population to its military at a time when trust in the institution. is challenged.”
It’s a challenge the Air Force, and the military in general, is facing again.
The Navy, Army and Air Force all said they do not expect to meet their recruitment goals this year, continuing a challenging trend from 2022, which saw record lows. For months, military leaders have pointed to the economy, a low desire to serve and a lack of knowledge among young people about what the military does as factors that have hurt recruitment.
But while the recruiting situation has gotten worse over the past two years, the mission has generally not changed for the Thunderbirds, who this year have more than 30 air shows scheduled across the country. During their travels, the group often interacts with the public, hoping to give people everywhere a glimpse behind the curtain of military service.
“We’ve been there many times in history,” Elliott told CNN of the gap between the American public and its military.
“It’s a good thing to be a unifying force in a division of time,” he added, “to create a light of importance that people can look at and say, ‘I don’t mind being here. you’re here for five minutes. or five generations, we’re your Air Force.'”
The pilots who fly for Thunderbird – who almost exclusively call each other by their team position number or their call signs – are based at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. But they spent most of their two-year assignment with the Thunderbird on the road, either rehearsing for air shows, flying them or traveling next door.
That time on the road was added by Elliott, who said it was critical that the team as a whole — including more than 100 enlisted airmen who monitor the aircraft, repair and inspect fuel systems, and maintain of oxygen masks and parachutes – able to practice. other performance features, which help keep pilots safe.
Despite the ease with which the six demo pilots planned, the flight they performed was extremely dangerous and was made possible by meticulous preparation that took place behind the scenes. Elliott, who flew 30 different aircraft with more than 2,555 total flight hours in his career, attended the Air Force’s Weapons School and served as a test and experimental pilot. He said flying with the Thunderbirds was “the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
CNN was invited earlier this month to ride with a pilot his F-16 as the team rehearses for the weekend show. It was the first time a visitor could watch from the air as demo pilots practiced their carefully choreographed barrel rolls, aileron rolls, and flew just 18 inches away from the famous four -ship diamond formation in the team.
Before the flight, guests flying with the team are required to go through training to prepare for things like gravity force (G-force) or even possible ejection from the plane. Contract the muscles in your lower body to push the blood back to your head, so you don’t get bored; breathing in a specific rhythm called hook breathing; lean your head back so you don’t feel the weight of the extra gravity on your neck.
And, just as important, avoid hitting or touching certain buttons, levers or switches in the cockpit.
It seems like a no-brainer: Squeeze, breathe, don’t touch anything. But that’s to say nothing of the additional demands of being an F-16 pilot, which requires taking every step to stay alert while simultaneously maintaining the presence of mind to fly safely.
And in the case of Thunderbirds, to make it all look and sound effortless.
While CNN is on the air with Lt. Col. Ryan “Slinga” Yingling, Thunderbird #7 and director of operations, the six performing pilots ran the show they would do for a crowd below just a few days ago. Despite the difficulty of the maneuvers they perform, on the radio they may also be commenting on the weather or a sporting event.
As their jets gracefully circle each other with great precision, they can be heard cheering and cheering in unison, exchanging jokes and comments about the impressive stunts they pull.
Every maneuver is planned down to the second and reviewed in great detail once the team has landed safely. In the debrief after their rehearsal, team members go through a video recording of the flight they made moments before, moving frame by frame, offering praise and, sometimes, helpful criticism of their own flight.
More than once throughout the day, members of the Thunderbirds team said that they were only able to do what they did because of the cohesiveness of their unit. That became clearer as the pilots worked through their debrief, which was conducted as smoothly as their rehearsal.
That ability to work in a team is a key part of what the Thunderbirds look for in pilots who apply to join. It’s also one of the things pilots talk about over and over again about why they love their jobs so much.
“There is no ego,” Yingling said. Each person will have “a whole family that we will carry forever,” said Capt. (Dr.) Travis “Angry” Grindstaff, Thunderbird #9 and the team’s flight surgeon.
It’s a “small-team mindset on a big team,” added Capt. Zachary “Zeke” Taylor, Thunderbird #2 and the left-wing pilot for the squadron. “Everyone is a go-getter and very happy to be here. They want to be here.”
Sitting around the conference room table at the end of the debrief, all members of the 12-person team talked about what brought them to the Air Force, and to the Thunderbirds in particular. Their answers ranged from family ties to service, to hearing about fighter pilots as children at school.
But Grindstaff, like many throughout the military, said the Air Force seemed to give him a path to more opportunities in life. He said he “grew up on a farm in the middle of nowhere, with no money” and saw service academies as his chance to get an education and a career. That’s why he decided to go to the Air Force Academy, which gave him “all the opportunities I have now.”
“I graduated college and then went to medical school on the Air Force dime, got to pursue all my dreams,” Grindstaff said. “And I realized that there are probably a lot of people out there who are the same as me, and what a wonderful experience it would be for them to know something that they have, like an academy, in their pocket, which is not. let they only get an education, but pursue their dreams and be a part of something like this.