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Air Force demo team flying again, but no shows set

Thursday, August 1, 2013 | 4:29 p.m. CDT; updated 6:06 p.m. CDT, Thursday, August 1, 2013
Maj. Blaine Jones gets ready to board his aircraft as the Thunderbirds resume limited flight operations at Nellis Air Force Base on July 23. The aerobatic display team was ordered to stand down April 1 because of sequestration. Enough money was found to enable the pilots to have two flights per week to maintain their qualifications.

LAS VEGAS — It's 9 a.m. on a recent Tuesday, and there's a buzz outside the Thunderbird hangar at Nellis Air Force Base that hasn't been heard in months.

The F-16 Fighting Falcon jets glisten in the sun as Thunderbird pilots Maj. Blaine Jones and Lt. Col. Greg Moseley speed-walk along a line of maintenance crew members more than 30 people long, grinning as they salute and backhand slap each crew member's hand — the customary Shake-and-Bake before every flight.

It's a good day to fly. Jones and Moseley go through cockpit checks methodically, like a runner preparing before a race.

"Let's pull some G's," Jones says.

"I know the feeling," Staff Sgt. Alexander Reed replies.

The engines fire to life. 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.

It's the Thunderbirds' first flight since Air Combat Command cut flight hours last spring and canceled Thunderbirds shows as part of across-the-board federal budget cuts. So-called sequestration forced the Air Force to scale back. Eliminating the Thunderbirds' more than $20 million flight budget was one way to save money.

Jones thinks about the last show the Thunderbirds performed in mid-March in Titusville, Fla. Storm clouds were rolling in and a tornado hit a nearby city, but a crowd still turned out to see the Air Force's premier air demonstration squadron. As soon as the show ended, the storm arrived and drenched the fans.

"It didn't matter if it was going to hail on them, they were going to be out there to support us," Jones told the Las Vegas Sun.

The team recently received 140 flight hours, enough for two flights each week, for each pilot to maintain proficiency. It's not enough to return to flying shows. In the meantime, there is ground work to be done before Oct. 1, the date a new federal budget year begins and the fate of the Thunderbirds is determined.

Life on the ground has been different but no less busy for the 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 helps to keep formations and communication skills sharp but 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 has been to expand the Thunderbirds' 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 activity on social media, interacting with fans on Reddit, Facebook and Twitter to maintain a national presence.

"That show that we do is a great conduit into the communities that we serve," Thunderbird No. 3 pilot Maj. Caroline Jensen says. "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. 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 the squadron spending more time around the base.

"You'd think a squadron that does nothing but fly demos wouldn't be busy," Moseley says. "But we're probably as busy as we ever have been."

Many of the tasks are done with Oct. 1 looming 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.

It's not the flying many of the pilots miss — it's the people. Every weekend, Jones 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 various cities and whose life the Thunderbirds might impact.

But he doesn't dwell on it long. There's 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.

Right after Thunderbird No. 8 is moved from its parking space in the hangar, assistant crew chief Tech Sgt. 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. Jones compares it with a basketball player not practicing his jump shot. Reaction times slow, which can be deadly when two jet aircraft are 18 inches apart.

"It's a step in the right direction," Moseley says. "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 the maintenance crew members 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 returns to normal on the base. The jets are where they belong.

"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 says. "And the anticipation of us being back is going to be outstanding."


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