Thunderbird pilot talks about air show flying

Thunderbird pilot talks about air show flying

The U.S. Air Force Thunderbird pilot who safely ejected after his F-16 engine failed during a flyover June 2 at the Air Force Academy commencement in Colorado Springs worked as an F-16 instructor pilot at Hill Air Force Base until last year — and shared his thoughts on being a member of the elite Thunderbird team just a week before the incident.

In a May 26 interview ahead of this month’s Warriors Over the Wasatch Open House and Air Show at Hill Air Force Base, Major Alex Turner acknowledged the risks of flying: “There are dangers that you don’t even know are out there, but our training rules and foundation we receive in pilot training is what keeps you safe.” 

Turner served as an instructor pilot at Hill between 2013 and 2015. He has logged more than 1,200 flight hours as an Air Force pilot and more than 270 combat hours over Libya and Iraq. 

His experience in combat contributes to his skills on the team. “Flying is a combination of all the missions we’ve done in combat. We fly very low to the ground, and as a solo pilot, we do a lot of ground referencing — looking at the ground and target features, determining our speed and altitude, then figuring out what we need to do to get our jets to a certain location,” Turner said. 

“I am doing those same basic tactics to get to show center. I see the crowd and the runway and we are looking outside and finding our way there the same way we are taught in training, which involves a lot of maneuvering and energy management.”

At the same time, being a Thunderbird is vastly different from combat. 

“Working with the team, it is very much a stick-and-rudder operation, with pure hand, eye, feet and throttle work. It’s the most physical flying I’ve ever done,” Turner said. “You are under a lot of strain, and your nerves kind of get fried from the flying.”

After the June 2 crash, the Air Force immediately canceled upcoming shows for the Thunderbirds, placing in question their performance at the June 25 and 26 air show on the Utah base. 

“Standard Thunderbird procedure is to stand down following mishaps like this. They are currently evaluating future shows. The stand-down length is TBD,” according to Air Combat Command Public Affairs. 

Hill AFB spokesman Micah Garbarino said the air show would go on, even if the Thunderbirds do not perform.

Turner was looking forward to returning to Hill AFB. “It is such a historic place and I remember the awesome squadron and quality of life where I spent just under two and a half years, especially the kindness of everyone in the community.”

Turner earned one of three spots on the AF Thunderbirds team — out of more than three dozen applying.

“I know it sounds cheesy, but the Thunderbirds were the first jet fighters I had ever seen, and from that moment on, I wanted to fly fighter jets with the Air Force,” Turner said. “But joining the Thunderbirds, you definitely think it’s a long shot, since there are so many of us out in the combat forces and so few on the team.”

The subtleties of flying a jet in a demonstration show are often maneuvers that a casual observer may never notice, said Turner, who flies the No. 6 jet. 

“When the jets do opposing passes, we make it look like our noses are almost touching, but I have to fly a little bit higher, and because I am farther away from the crowd, it takes a lot of subtlety to make it look right.”

Once Turner takes off in his jet at an air show, he gets into the zone and forgets about the crowd. 

“I focus on the flying and mental stress to do it well and do it safely, and then I kind of snap out of it as I come in for the landing and I can relax,” he said. 

The Warriors Over the Wasatch Open House and Air Show at Hill Air Force Base is set for June 25 and 26. Admission and parking is free. Gates will open at 8 a.m. each day; flying will start at 10 a.m. Hill AFB spokesmen recommend attendees use UTA; for more information, visit www.rideuta.com/Rider-Info/Utah-Air-Show. Those driving to the air show should use the West Gate (Exit 335) and Roy Gate (Exit 338) off of Interstate 15. 

For more information on the air show, visit www.hill.af.mil/warriorsoverthewasatch/ 

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