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Flying with the Thunderbirds

By Rachael Plath, Meteorologist, r.plath@krdo.com
Published On: May 28 2014 11:35:45 PM CDT

I had the distinct honor of getting a flight with the AF Thunderbirds, here is the behind-scenes-look at the life of the elite pilots.

The Air Force Thunderbirds are the stars of the show, blasting overhead faster than the speed of sound.

The Thunderbirds date back to 1953 and their mission is simple: to demonstrate the capabilities of the Air Force while showcasing its professionalism. 

Maj. Mike Fisher carried out this mission, taking Stormtracker 13 meteorologist Rachael Plath for a spin in one of the famous birds.

Before receiving the honor of flying with the Thunderbirds, Plath underwent several hours of training.  She learned about everything from the proper way to eject from the plane in the event of an emergency to how to combat motion sickness. 

One of the tricks to dealing with motion sickness is the supply of pure oxygen, as opposed to the diluted quantities found in regular air.  The supply is pumped through the oxygen masks each pilot wears with the flip of a switch.

Thunderbird pilots also wear what is called a G-suit.  The suits inflate with air when an increase in gravitation pull is detected.  This helps to keep the blood from rushing into the pilots’ feet, as that would cause the pilot to pass out due to lack of blood flow to the brain.

Plath’s endured a 7.5-g turn during her flight, which equated to about 900 pounds of force.

During the hour-long flight, Plath hit speeds near 360 mph; the planes are capable of going much faster.

To ensure the crew stays healthy, a Thunderbird Team surgeon is a critical member of the team. 

The traveling team consists of 12 offices and over 100 enlisted airmen.  From communications experts and flight equipment experts to maintenance support personnel and airlift coordinators, the Thunderbirds travel as a team equipped with everything and everyone they need to be self-sufficient.

While known for their barrel rolls and loops, the work of the Thunderbirds extends beyond the air shows.  Each crew member is ready to deploy at a moment’s notice if duty calls.

According to Fisher, the Thunderbird F-16 airplanes can go from show-ready to combat-ready in 72 hours.

The Thunderbirds area also the ambassadors for the Air Force, with a goal of sparking interest among those who may be unfamiliar with the capabilities of the military branch.

The Thunderbirds are based out of Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, where they are stationed for two years before moving on to their next assignment.

For the Thunderbirds' air show schedule, click here.

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