Thunderbirds bring on some aerial acrobatics
By Mitch Shaw
Standard-Examiner Davis Bureau
HILL AIR FORCE BASE -- Layton resident Paul Strickland has piloted at least five different planes over 25 years, but there is one jet and one two-year tour of duty he will remember the most.
From 1991 to 1992, the former squadron commander at Hill Air Force Base was a member of the world's premier aerial demonstration team -- the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds.
"It was a real privilege," Strickland said of his time as an aerial acrobat. "It sounds kind of canned, but you really are the face of the Air Force."
The Thunderbirds will be the headliner at this weekend's air show at Hill.
"We're excited about the show and to be back in Utah again," said Tech. Sgt. Randy Redman, the Thunderbird public affairs liaison. "It's pretty close to home and usually a pretty good crowd."
The squad will close the Hill Air Show as the last act performing on both Saturday and Sunday.
Based at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, the squadron tours the United States and much of the world, performing formations and solo flying in specially marked F-16s.
The team is scheduled to be on the road for 270 days in 2009, performing 72 shows at locations that include India and Guam.
"It can be a real challenge to family life," said Strickland, who had two young daughters during his Thunderbird stint. "It's so much more than just flying. Sometimes it's pretty hectic."
Layton resident David Parker was a crew chief with the Thunderbirds from 1982 to 1985 and can attest to the hectic lifestyle on the road with the team.
"You get to the point where you are on the road and wake up in some hotel room and say, "Now, where am I again?' "
The AF 'face'
Aside from the actual performances, pilots also visit local schools and hospitals and perform shows for the disabled.
"That's one of those things you never forget," Strickland said. "When you see a kid's face light up like a candle, you realize why you're really doing it."
Sgt. Jodi Edwards, of Ogden, served as a crew chief for the Thunderbirds from 2004 to 2008.
Like Strickland, he will never forget his days on the team that serves as the Air Force's most powerful marketing tool.
"It was an awesome experience because you are the face of the Air Force," he said. "You're kind of the pointy edge of the spear."
Honoring the fighters
Roy resident Mac McLaren was a crew chief from 1991 to 1994 and said the team honors airmen who are deployed in war.
"What we did was for the real war fighter," he said, "for the guys who are doing the real work."
Edwards and McLaren are both currently employed by Hill. The Thunderbirds and the base have had quite a recent history together.
In October 2007, crews at the base readied 11 Block 52, combat-capable F-16s for the Thunderbirds to use in their aerial demonstrations.
Two groups from Hill, the 309th Aircraft Maintenance Group and the 508th Aircraft Sustainment Group, partnered to remove the weapons system from the aircraft and replace it with a smoke-generating system.
The planes were also painted with the Thunderbird's familiar red, white and blue color scheme.
In November 2008, the Ogden Air Logistics Center delivered the final two, specially-modified Block 52 F-16s to the Thunderbird squad.
The modifications were performed again by crews from the 309th and the 508th. The Thunderbird squad is moving to the Block 52 version of the F-16 after using the Block 32 model for years.
"It's the same plane, just a newer, better model," Redman said. "It's basically like going from a regular Camaro to a Camaro Super Sport."
The first plane flown by the squadron was the F-84 Thunderjet in the 1950s. The group flew six different planes after that, before switching to the F-16 in the 1980s.
Redman said the group will perform in F-16s for "at least another 10 years."
Strickland, now a commercial pilot with Southwest Airlines and also a part-time performer with the Patriots West Coast Demonstration Team, has flown the A-10, F-5, L-39 and the F-16 in his career.
"Hands down, the F-16 is the best thing I've ever flown," he said. "It was nice to be able to really put the aircraft through its paces in front of a lot of people and show them where their tax dollars are going."