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October 24, 2014

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Thunderbirds return to the sky, hope to take their show back on the road

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Flight crews line up to greet pilots as the Thunderbirds resume limited flight operations at Nellis Air Force Base Tuesday, July 22, 2013 after having to stand down since April because of sequestration.

Thunderbirds Back in Action

Maj. Blaine Jones gets ready to board his aircraft as the Thunderbirds resume limited flight operations at Nellis Air Force Base Tuesday, July 22, 2013 after having to stand down since April because of sequestration. Launch slideshow »

It’s about 9 a.m. on a recent Tuesday and there is a buzz outside the Thunderbird Nellis Air Force Base hangar — a buzz that hasn’t been heard in months.

Maintenance crews have been Windexing and power-washing the F-16 Fighting Falcon jets all morning to make sure they glisten in the sun. Now the crew members stand in a line, more than 30 people long, as Thunderbird pilots Maj. Blaine Jones and Lt. Col. Greg Moseley step outside.

The pilots speed-walk down the line of the assembled, grinning as they salute and backhand slap each crew member's hand — the Shake-and-Bake, their custom before every flight.

On the runway, a procession of fighter jets takes off into a cloudy but blue sky. It’s a good day to fly. Jones and Moseley hop into their cockpits and go through checks methodically, like a runner preparing before a race.

“Let’s pull some G’s,” Jones says to Staff Sgt. Alexander Reed.

“I know the feeling,” Reed replies.

The engines fire up, each roaring to life with a puff of black smoke. It’s been a long time since Jones heard and felt the jet’s furnace-like roar underneath his all-American red, white and blue helmet.

This is the Thunderbirds’ first flight since the spring when Air Combat Command cut flight hours and canceled all of the Thunderbirds’ remaining shows this year as part of sequestration. The across-the-board federal budget cuts forced the Air Force to find ways to scale back, and eliminating the Thunderbirds’ more than $20 million flight budget was one way to save money.

Jones still thinks about that last show the Thunderbirds performed in mid-March in Titusville, Fla. Storm clouds were rolling in and a tornado had hit a nearby city, but a crowd of people still turned out to see the Air Force’s premier air demonstration squadron.

As soon as the show ended, the thunderstorm arrived and drenched the fans. The crowd’s support in spite of the weather has stuck with Jones ever since.

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An F-15 attached to the 57th Wing based at Nellis Air Force Base is seen behind the tails of the Thunderbirds F-16's Tuesday, July 22, 2013.

“It didn’t matter if it was going to hail on them, they were going to be out there to support us,” Jones said. “It was really neat to see how excited people were to see us, how much they would go through to watch us perform our show.”

The team recently received 140 flight hours, enough for two flights each week for each pilot to maintain proficiency, but not enough to return to flying shows. In the meantime, there is work to be done on the ground as they wait for Oct. 1, the date a new federal budget year begins and their fate is determined.

•••

Life on the ground has been different but no less busy for the Thunderbird pilots since their flight hours were taken away.

Rather than flying to a new city to perform a show every week, they start their week in a simulator. If other squadrons are using the simulators, they’ll do mock drills, going through on-ground checklists but stopping short of takeoff. The program allows them to keep their formations and communication skills sharp, but it still falls short of replicating the real thing, Jones said. After all, a simulator is only a video game.

After simulation, pilots and the crew spend the afternoon visiting schools, ROTC programs and hospitals throughout the Las Vegas Valley.

Moseley said the goal since the budget cuts has been to expand the Thunderbirds’ community outreach within the valley, something they’ve never previously been able to do. He estimates “America’s Ambassadors in Blue” have visited or hosted more than 30 local schools so far this year. They’ve also increased their activity on social media, interacting with fans on Reddit, Facebook and Twitter to maintain a national presence.

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Maj. Joshua Boudreaux's Thunderbirds shoulder patch June 13, 2013 at Nellis Air Force Base.

“That show that we do is a great conduit into the communities that we serve,” Thunderbird No. 3 pilot Maj. Caroline Jensen said. “But the air show is about 5 percent of what we do, and 95 percent of it is community relations, and we’ve been able to do that.”

Then the rest of the day is spent editing and updating 300-page operations manuals. It’s a tedious task but one that will make the transition smoother for new members in the future, Moseley said.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the crew focuses on academics. Some members study parts of the aircraft like the radar, learning its history and how it works, while others take the time to earn a degree.

Enlisted officers use the opportunity to take Air Force classes to move up through the ranks. Moseley also has tasked the squadron to spend more time around the base as well.

“You’d think a squadron that does nothing but fly demos wouldn’t be busy,” Moseley said. “But we’re probably as busy as we ever have been.”

Many of the tasks are done with Oct. 1 in mind. The date looms in the distance with a glimmer of hope. These jobs are designed to make sure the Thunderbirds are ready to fly if they’re given the order.

Still, the sequestration cuts created a hole that existed no matter how much work was done on the ground. It’s not the flying many of the pilots miss — it’s the people. Every weekend, Jones wonders which city he would be in if the command hadn’t come down to ground the Thunderbirds.

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Maj. Blaine Jones talks about his mission as a Thunderbird pilot at Nellis Air Force Base Tuesday, July 22, 2013.

He wonders if they’d be visiting a school or fulfilling a dream for a Make-a-Wish kid. He thinks about the opinions and questions people in the crowd might ask him in that city, and whose life the Thunderbirds might impact.

“You’re sad about the missed opportunities that are out there,” Jones said. “I feel I’m a little luckier than some of the other guys because I got to experience that last year.”

That community outreach is why Jones and the rest of the crew signed up for the Thunderbirds in the first place. Jones is in his second year of what is typically a two-year tour on the squadron. However, the tour has been expanded to three years to maintain that experience level for the pilots who’ve missed out on flying in 2013.

The blue jumpsuits and red, white and blue jets flying in tight formations have the ability to awe and inspire as the voice and face of the Air Force. They’re able to do that in Las Vegas, but Jones misses meeting people in different cities.

But he doesn’t dwell on it too long. There is too much work to be done, he says.

•••

It’s now 9:40 a.m., and the crew has removed the wheel block and remaining cables from the Thunderbirds. The moment of flight nears.

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Right after Thunderbird No. 8 is moved from its parking space in the hangar, assistant crew chief Tsgt. Ryan Schenkel runs a floor cleaner over its spot on the polished white floor.

The additional flight hours are important for the pilots. Their skills get rusty if they don’t fly every day, much like what might happen if a basketball player didn’t practice his jump shot regularly, Jones said. Their reaction times slow down, which can be deadly when one is flying 18 inches from another plane.

These renewed flight hours will help the pilots’ transition into training season if they are ordered to return to the skies.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Moseley said. “Air Force leaders have been forced to make a lot of difficult decisions … these hours between now and September will help us a lot.”

Now about 30 members of the maintenance crew look toward the runway, waiting for the jets to take off. About 20 minutes later, two Thunderbirds tear through the sky and fade into the distance. The crew cheers the successful takeoff and then disperses.

For at least a little while, everything had returned to normal on the base and the jets were where they belonged. While there is work to be done on the ground, the crew can only hope the new budget on Oct. 1 will allow the jets to return to the sky permanently.

“All we can do is hope that next year we hit the road, have a full schedule and it’s going to be better than ever because we’ve been away,” Jones said. “And the anticipation of us being back is going to be outstanding.”

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