MOODY AIR FORCE BASE -- It's been a long time, but the U.S. Air Force's premier aerial demonstration team, the Thunderbirds, are back to fly over the skies of Moody Air Force Base.

The Thunderbirds are just part of the program that will thrill thousands of spectators today and Sunday. It's an event that has been anticipated since the last show took place in 1999.

One of the eight Thunderbird pilots, Capt. Todd Canterbury, Lead Solo No. 5, is in his second year with the team. He's been in the Air Force a little over 10 years and earned his commission through Arizona State University's ROTC.

Being a Thunderbird means working within a team of pilots and maintenance and administrative personnel, totaling about 120 people.

"First and foremost, you need to be an expert in your field," Canterbury said. "The Thunderbirds get to select the cream of the crop -- the best in the Air Force. Whatever field you're in, whether it's public affairs, fighter pilot, maintenance officer or maintainer, you need to be an expert in your field."

Canterbury referred to the Thunderbird support personnel as the team's backbone. Pilots draw all the attention, while support personnel are busy behind the scenes. About 60 people are on the road supporting the Thunderbirds.

Officer assignments to the Thunderbirds are only two years, and Canterbury has eight months left. Sometimes commander leaders have an opportunity to come back and fly on the team years later at the rank of lieutenant colonel.

The Thunderbirds' portion of the show lasts about an hour, and 30 minutes of that is flying. The first 30 minutes is a choreographed launching performed by the maintainers -- which Canterbury considers a show highlight.

Asked how many maneuvers the demonstration team performs, Canterbury said the team has never counted them. "We try to have an airplane in front of you for the entire 30 minutes and never more than about a 10- to 15-second break when there aren't any planes in front of the spectators," he said.

The degree of difficulty for some maneuvers depends on the pilots. In one maneuver called the Calypso, one airplane flies upright and another flies upside down over it.

"If you look at my airplane, I've got the 5 upside down -- I'm the guy who flies upside down 90 percent of the time," Canterbury said. "That way when you takes pictures of this beautiful airplane when it's flying, it'll be right side up in your picture."

Canterbury believes the toughest maneuver the team flies is when he is the lead solo and his partner as the opposing solo attempts to meet right over show center with about 1,200 mph closure.

"We do that to meet directly over show center," Canterbury said. "Now, why is that so difficult? One second error, a split second will cause a 600-foot miss. My opposing solo this year has never missed outside 200 feet. We're talking two-tenths of a second is the farthest our timing has ever been off this year, and that's fighting the wind and conditions."

The Thunderbirds are planning more than 83 shows this year in 50 locations. Each location is unique and challenging, whether it's the land they fly over or the hazards.

Canterbury encourages the community to come out this weekend for a great air show and to see the Air Force in action.

"We've got the incredible responsibility of representing the 360,000 personnel who are on active duty serving around the world today," Canterbury said. "We're their boys when they can't speak since they're deployed. We take that responsibility very seriously, and we're going to put on the best air show we can, and they are really going to enjoy themselves."

To contact reporter Rip Prine, please call 244-3400, ext. 237.

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