July 23, 2010 (by SSgt. Amanda Savannah) - For 15 years, Capt. Ryan Riley, 35th Fighter Squadron instructor pilot, has been living his childhood dreams of aviation, one step at a time.
Capt. Ryan Riley, 35th FS instructor pilot, poses in front of one of the squadron's F-16s on July 7th, 2010. Captain Riley was recently selected to join the Air Force Thunderbirds team as Thunderbird No. 2, the left wing for the squadron.
Now at age 29 and an Air Force pilot, his path has led him to his recent selection as part of the Air Force Thunderbirds 2011 demonstration team.
"I've wanted to be a pilot for a long time, since I was a kid," Captain Riley said. "It progressed from wanting to be a pilot, to a military pilot in high school, then ... my operational path provided a conduit for me to fly with the Thunderbirds, and I took it."
Captain Riley will join the team in October as Thunderbird No. 2, the left wing for the squadron.
"Each person and position is carefully selected based on the individual's record of performance, capabilities in their particular field and a demonstrated commitment to excellence that matches the Airmen we represent every day," said Lt. Col. Case Cunningham, the squadron commander/leader and Thunderbird No. 1.
But before he could be selected, his journey had to begin. He entered basic training at the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1999, graduated in 2003 and then completed pilot training in 2004 and F-16 training in 2005. His career then led him to Kunsan Air Base, Republic of Korea, in August 2009, where he began his in-depth application package.
As part of his package, Captain Riley said he made sure to show the reviewers who he is personally and why he wanted to be part of the team.
"I put that aviation has been in my life from when I started flying when I was 14, and I had watched the Thunderbirds at shows from the time I was a little kid to today," said the Florence, Colo., native. "But my dedication and enthusiasm for not only the flying aspect, but also being an officer and representative of the Air Force, is why I want to be in the Thunderbirds. It's not for the flying per se, it's for the opportunity to represent the men and women in uniform and be able to get out there and put a name and face to the Air Force and the military in general."
He was then among the initial applicants selected to attend two personal interviews, one with the team and the other with its leadership.
"I was a little nervous, but viewed the interviews as a way for the Thunderbirds and leadership to see my personality and whether that coincided with the team's goals," said Captain Riley. "I think the interviews are a great way for applicants to bridge the gap between a paper application and actually showcasing, in person, their strengths and motivation for this unique mission."
Lt. Col. John Lyons, 35th Fighter Squadron commander, is not surprised Captain Riley was selected.
As an instructor pilot for the squadron, Colonel Lyons said Captain Riley is responsible for taking its newest students out of the basic course and putting them through upgrade training to wingmen, as well as upgrading wingmen to flight leads and flight leads to instructor pilots.
"What I've noticed about Captain Riley is his attention to detail and his professionalism," Colonel Lyons said. "He's extremely focused on the details as an instructor pilot, which is crucial to quality upgrades for our pilots. Then, he's a consummate professional."
Colonel Lyons believes these attributes are part of why Captain Riley will be a good asset to the Thunderbirds team.
"First and foremost, he's a model officer. We're all officers before anything else in the Air Force in terms of what we do," said Colonel Lyons. "We're pilots second and fighter pilots third. Captain Riley's professional attributes that he carries with him as an officer are going to serve him very well as a representative of the Air Force in the Thunderbirds."
Captain Riley said he expects to have fun, but to also bring his hard work and enthusiasm to the team.
"I expect to have fun, first and foremost. It's a unique opportunity that I'm very honored and humbled to have the chance to do," he said. "It's a busy schedule, but I think my hard work and enthusiasm will carry me through. I want to get out there and just give it my best shot, to pass on that enthusiasm and be able to talk about our mission and tell the Air Force story to the general public."
The Thunderbirds are currently touring in their 57th year as the Air Force's premier jet demonstration team. The 130-person squadron represents the nearly 700,000 active-duty, guard, Reserve and civil service Airmen serving at home and abroad. The Thunderbirds deliver the Air Force story at air shows around the country and the world each weekend from March through November.