Thunderbird pilots talk to JROTC students

LAYTON — Over the years, the U.S. Air Force’s air demonstration squadron, the Thunderbirds, have flown a host of various aircraft, with the F-16s being used by the team for over 30 years, and will remain that way until the F-35 steps in, which is slated to take over the Thunderbirds F-16s in the next ten years, according to Maj. Blaine Jones, Thunderbird Pilot No. 5 during his visit with JROTC members at Northridge High School on June 27.

High school visits are an integral part of the Thunderbird air shows, having talked with more than 10,000 students in 2012, as a way to inspire the next generation, not just through their air show performance, but to show the U.S. Air Force’s capabilities. 

The Thunderbird F-16s aren’t too much different than the ones flown in combat, other than the paint and a few minor changes to the planes. Jones says every one of their 11 jets has a different personality. “They all fly a little bit different from each other with their little idiosyncrasies, like rolling a little bit slower than the other, or responding just a little differently to your hand pressure,” Jones said. 

The Thunderbirds have eleven planes, eight of them they bring to the air shows, six they use for performances, and two as spares. Over the years, pilots and crew members have started giving their planes nicknames reflecting the plane’s personality. Jones plane has been nicknamed Buttercup. 

“She’s not the prettiest with some of her paint chipped off, and she eventually gets the job done, just like a good work horse,” Jones said.  

Thunderbird pilots normally only serve for two years, but since no one flew during sequestration last year, Jones and his fellow pilots have been allowed to stay on for an additional year. 

Jones says the reason they can fly so close together and so low to the ground is because they practice twice a day from November to March to learn the routines and instill the memory into their muscles for the three shows the team memorizes. The weather decides which of the shows they perform. They have a high, low, and flat routine for times when the clouds are too low, but other than that, their shows are exactly the same. 

However, Jones pointed out the maneuvers they perform aren’t too much different than the moves pilots are familiar with using in flight. 

“We just fly a little closer and add a little smoke out the back, but basically, it’s the same as what we do in combat,” Jones said. Thunderbird pilots are required to have over 750 fighter pilots hours, and seven to eight years of experience. 

Jones wasn’t always in the U.S. Air Force, having received a bachelor’s degree in Grain Science, and had a good job working in Kansas City running a bakery when the hijackers attacked on U.S. soil September 11, 2011. 

“I was sitting in my office hearing about the attacks, and looking at my great office and knowing I made good money, but I came to the realization that everything I had achieved to that day meant nothing,” Jones said. “I had done nothing to contribute to my niece’s future, or to ensure that the freedoms I enjoy carries on. I felt a calling to prevent the attacks from happening again, so I decided I wanted to be a fighter pilot.”

Jones told the JROTC students to dream big, because as he put it, “I never knew I couldn’t be a fighter pilot and I set my sights on that. Don’t ever limit yourself.” 

Jones pointed out that following ones dreams means setting goals, and accomplishing the intermediate steps to get there, which for him entailed going into the air force, getting a pilot’s license, and being the best he could in class. 

“You will fail too,” as Jones related the countless flying tests he struggled with. “If I had given up then, I wouldn’t be here today, so don’t ever give up and learn from those experiences because you will become a better person.”