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F-16 Fighting Falcon News

F-16 pilot fulfills lifelong dream as Thunderbird No. 4

September 21, 2010 (by Lt. Col. David Kurle) - Maj. Sean Gustafson has a simple but important message for his fellow Air Force reservists: "If they can dream it, they can do it. The opportunities available to reservists today are truly unlimited."

Maj. Sean Gustafson is the first Air Force Reserve F-16 pilot to fly with the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds aerial demonstration team. He joined the team two years ago from the 482nd FW at Homestead ARB, where he was an F-16 instructor pilot. [USAF photo]

He should know. The major is in the middle of a four-year Active Guard and Reserve tour fulfilling his childhood dream as the No. 4 (slot) pilot for the U.S. Air Force's demonstration team, the Thunderbirds.

Major Gustafson is also the first Air Force Reserve pilot chosen for the prestigious aerobatics team, flying the F-16 Fighting Falcon in front of millions of spectators.

"I think my being on the team demonstrates reservists are really out there doing every job in the Air Force," Major Gustafson said. "I think the lines between active duty and reserve are fading because we're all working and deploying side by side. Reservists are everywhere. We truly are deployed globally."

In almost two years of traveling around the world with the Thunderbirds, he said he's met reservists in almost every Air Force specialty code.

"One of the best parts of traveling for the past two years is meeting other reservists," Major Gustafson said. "They're excited when they find out there's a reservist flying on the team."

He said being a Thunderbird pilot is the highlight of his 14-year Air Force career.

"It was something I thought I wouldn't have the opportunity to do once I became a reservist," Major Gustafson said. "There was never a push to get a reservist on the team until two years ago."

Like most reservists, the major started on active duty and after a decade began a civilian career flying passenger jets for Delta Airlines. He also continued serving in the military and joined the Air Force Reserve's 482nd Fighter Wing at Homestead Air Reserve Base, Fla.

Two years ago, Major Gustafson applied for and was chosen as a Thunderbird pilot after competing against pilots from the Regular Air Force and Air National Guard.

He credits his experience as an F-16 instructor pilot with his success. With more than 2,000 hours in the Fighting Falcon, he's the team's "high-time" pilot and the only one to reach that flying hour milestone.

"One thing about the Air Force Reserve that's an asset is our level of experience," he said. "The Reserve has an incredible amount of experience because they've been performing the same missions so long and there's more continuity in a Reserve unit because people tend to stay in the same unit their whole careers."

During this second season with the Thunderbirds, Major Gustafson will fly a red, white and blue F-16 at 73 performances. He will end his stint with the team after its last show in November and finish his AGR tour at Headquarters Air Force Reserve Command at Robins AFB, Ga.

"The biggest job satisfaction is having people thank me for my service," he said. "What our generation is doing right now to preserve American freedoms is fantastic when you think about it."

Another reservist with the Thunderbirds is Staff Sgt. Andrue Donaldson, a crew chief who joined the team in 2010 from the Air Force Reserve's 926th Group at Nellis AFB, Nev.

"The young reservists of today should focus on their strengths, develop those and keep in mind we're being trained to do the same mission as our active-duty counterparts," Major Gustafson said. "The total Air Force is truly one team."

Courtesy of 442nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs