July 28, 2017 (by A1C Destinee Sweeney) - A small child in a sea of people stands in awe as the Thunderbirds, the U.S. Air Force precision-flying demonstration team, perform overhead. He feels the jet noise as it rumbles in his chest, while watching pilots guide red, white and blue F-16 Fighting Falcons into various maneuvers and formations.
Capt. Matthew Kimmel, 79th FS pilot and U.S. Thunderbirds pilot-select, inspects an F-16CM Fighting Falcon prior to flying at Shaw AFB on July 19, 2016. [USAF photo by A1C Destinee Sweeney]
The skies seem unattainable—the pilots, god-like— and a dream forms in the child's heart.
A combination of his love for aviation, the legacy of his grandfathers' military service, the patriotism that spread through the nation after the events of 9/11, and the memory of the Thunderbirds at a Travis Air Force Base Air Show in California, would later lead the boy to join the military.
After receiving a commission at the University of Southern California and successfully becoming an F-16 pilot, Capt. Matthew Kimmel, assigned to the 79th Fighter Squadron, ‘Tigers', would be selected to join the same demonstration team that inspired him nine years after joining the service.
"To grow up and become a Thunderbird pilot and to be looked at by potentially future generations of the Air Force, much like I looked at them when I was a kid, means the world to me," said Kimmel.
In 2018, Kimmel is slated to be Thunderbird No. 6, one of the team's solo acts and part of the diamond and delta formations, a four- and six-ship formation act, respectively.
"When you apply to the Thunderbirds you don't apply for a specific position, as a pilot you just hope to be one of the pilots on the team," said Kimmel. "When I applied I didn't have any position number in mind, my mentality was ‘I'd just like to be on the team' because I think it's quite an adventure in itself."
Before he flies in an air show, Kimmel will have to complete training, which begins in late October and lasts until February. He will fly every day, up to twice a day, Monday through Friday to certify as a solo pilot and be able to fly in the formations.
"The transition to becoming a Thunderbird from being a combat, mission-ready fighter pilot will have a lot of the same tenants, but will be different in so many ways as well," said Kimmel. "The discipline, the trust between myself and the people instructing me, all that remains the same. A lot of it will be a lot different, never in combat do we go inverted three feet from another jet."
Although Kimmel is excited to become a Thunderbird, it will not be easy to stop being a Tiger.
"It's never easy to leave a fighter squadron," said Kimmel. "I've done it a couple times now. I think leaving the combat mission and some of the best friends I've made here in the Tigers will probably be the hardest departure I've made from a fighter squadron."
During his time with the Tigers, Kimmel has served as a flight commander, evaluator pilot and instructor pilot, whose Airmanship and leadership proved vital to the Tiger's success during their recent combat deployment, said Lt. Col. Derrick Franck, 79th FS
"I'm proud to have Capt. Kimmel be selected for the Thunderbirds," said Franck. "His Airmanship, officership and personality will serve the Air Force well as Thunderbird No. 6."
As he heads to Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, Kimmel plans to take the lessons he has learned here and keep them close to heart.
"The things I've learned here at Shaw that I will take to the Thunderbirds is really trusting people, the mission and your leadership," said Kimmel. "I think it speaks to any job you have that it's important to create and foster the great relationships you have in a squadron and across the base. I'll take that to Nellis and the Thunderbirds. I want to be that good team player for them."
Kimmel has accumulated more than 1,500 flight hours and flown in 179 combat missions, supporting operations in Iraq
, Afghanistan and Southwest Asia.
In the near future, an announcer's voice echoes into a crowd of future pilots and maintainers. Eyes in the audience are glued to the skies as Thunderbirds No. 5 and 6 perform the famed reflection pass, demonstrating the capabilities of the Air Force's high-performance aircraft and skilled aviators while inspiring the next generation of Airmen.