Valdosta Daily Times

October 26, 2012

The thunder rolls into town

Thunderbird F-16 squadron represents pride, precision of the USAF

Jason Schaefer
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — While guests who attend the Moody Air Force Base Open House this weekend will be greeted by heart-stopping stunts, the mission of the Thunderbird Demonstration Squadron is far more than aerobatics.

Take the case of Maj. Blaine Jones, the Opposing Solo pilot in plane 6 for the squadron. His career with the Thunderbirds has brought him full-circle, serving with the very team that inspired him to become a pilot.

“A long time ago, I saw the Thunderbirds fly,” Jones said. “I didn’t join the military right off the bat, but they inspired me to take a flight at the local airport on Sept. 8, 2001, then Sept. 11 happened.”

Jones sat in his office, absorbing the sour news and made his decision “right there” to join the Air Force. He had flown once before, and decided to become a fighter pilot.

“Up until that point, I had been working for myself, for my own personal gain, not for a cause,” Jones said. “If I had never seen the Thunderbirds, I never would have taken that first flight.”

This is the true mission of the team of F-16s — to inspire. Decked out in bright and patriotic red, white and blue, the squadron, nicknamed “America’s Ambassadors in Blue,” Thunderbirds air shows are

intended to demonstrate the power and maneuverability of the planes, but also the strength of the Air Force, the U.S. military and the airmen and servicemen serving across the globe.

“I never thought of them that way when I first saw them,” Jones said, “so if I can inspire someone, wherever they are in their life, one guy or one gal, it’s worth it.”

Jones’ job with the team is unique, as are all positions. Like a highly-trained athletic squad — or perhaps more like a troupe of ballet dancers — each of the six demonstration pilots serve in a niche capacity.

The first four serve as lead, left and right wing and slot position — the rear plane — in formation flights. These pilots fly impressively close to one another as they careen across the air field in front of onlookers, showing the precision military pilots are expected to have.

The last two pilots in planes 5 and 6, the lead solo and opposing solo positions, show the individual ability of the jets to perform outstanding maneuvers of speed and power. Because the lead solo plane spends most of its time in the air upside-down, the number 5 is inverted on the plane as well as the pilot’s uniform.

As the opposing solo pilot, Jones is one of this pair. He flies directly above the inverted number 5 plane in a maneuver called the Calypso, he said. And in another maneuver, he and the number 5 pilot will approach one another from two miles away, passing each other at close quarters at about 1,000 miles per hour.

Even in these impressive stunts, Jones said he doesn’t get nervous — not anymore.

“It’s less of a show of performance and more just trying to be in the right spot at the right time and doing the correct maneuver,” Jones said. “It’s a normal job, but it’s a lot of fun.”

For example, when Jones sees the lead solo pilot off of his wing tip two miles off, and they cross each other in six seconds, he feels a sort of zen-like peace, he said.

“Time kind of slows down and you make small adjustments, and do everything that you can to make the pass look perfect,” Jones said. “It’s a very relaxing, very methodical kind of thing.”

But for all of the excitement and all the gut-wrenching power of a high-G turn, the flying is not his favorite part of the job.

“It’s a lot of fun on the team, but the real joy is traveling around the country and around the world, and talking to folks from all walks of life and hopefully opening their eyes up to the opportunities here,” Jones said. “You can do whatever you want in the country. We have so many folks around the world, so many airmen, and to be able to represent and show what they can do is great for us.”

Only six pilots comprise the Thunderbirds squadron in the air, but it takes 120 to put the show together, Jones said. The shows demonstrate not only the pilots, but the career fields on the ground that perform support services for the USAF.

The pilots will hold a 40-minute performance, during which they will do about 40 maneuvers in formation and solo.

“It will show the pride and precision of the Air Force, showcasing the workhorse of the squadron,” Jones said. “There will also be an ensemble of musician and narration.”