U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds Focus On The Story, Not The Noise

by Joey Crandall, joey@carsonvalleytimes.com

Photo courtesy of the U. S. Air Force
Photo courtesy of the U. S. Air Force
From left, Staff Sgt. Alex Reed, Chris Johnson, Bobbi Thompson and Maj. Scott Petz. Photo by Melissa Blosser, Douglas County Community Relations

MINDEN, Nev. — “Everybody loves seeing those F-16s going low and fast and making lots of noise,” Major Scott Petz said with a laugh Monday morning, sitting in a conference room at the Minden Tahoe Airport. “The community interaction, though – us going to show sites and seeing smiles on people’s faces, the Pilot-For-A-Day program, the school visits – Just being able to get out there and tell our unique stories as to how we got where we are. That is much more encompassing than just the six F-16s people see at the show.”

Petz, or Thunderbird No. 8 of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds air demonstration squadron, was in Carson Valley Monday with Crew Chief and Staff Sgt. Alexander Reed for advance planning of the squadron’s slated performance Aug. 22-23.

The team’s nine-month performance schedule opened with the Super Bowl National Anthem flyover and includes 73 shows at more than 40 locations. In mid-February, it was announced that one such stop would be Minden’s annual Aviation Roundup in late August.

A Thunderbirds air demonstration is a mix of formation flying and solo routines. The pilots perform approximately 40 maneuvers in a given demonstration. The entire show, including the ground show and air demonstration, lasts about 75 minutes.

It’s the smaller venues, like Minden, that seem to strike closest to home with Petz, 35.

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“We’re fortunate to come to places like Minden,” he said. “You gain a lot from the large show sites, but you gain just as much, if not more from going to the smaller communities. It’s more of a personal show. You’re able to get closer to the community.

“You take a place like this, with one high school, we’ll go to that school this August and get to talk there twice. Overall, it helps us interact more personally with the smaller number of people.”

The Thunderbirds appearance will be, without question, the largest event the airport in Minden has hosted.

“We had a chance to go to Durango (Colorado) and they had a picture from 1993 of the Thunderbirds flying over that community,” Petz said. “You wouldn’t believe how many memories that created and the impact that had on that community.

“That’s the way it’ll be here. We have not had a major jet team at the Minden Tahoe Airport. You wouldn’t believe the impact it had the one time the jet team was there (Durango). It’s an incredible honor to be a part of something like that.”

Petz himself grew up in Faith, South Dakota – a town of 421 people. He was active in football, basketball and track and joined the Air National Guard out of high school.

“I wanted to get out of Faith,” he said. “I just joined the Air National Guard, and that paid for college.

“I had a dream of being a Thunderbird pilot as a kid,” he said. “You lose site of a dream like that over time.”

He left “a career as an ice cream man,” he said, and put in for a spot in the pilot training program. From there he was selected to fly F-16s with the South Dakota Air National Guard and was served in three deployments overseas.

“Your focuses change. You want to be a military member, then a great enlisted member, then a great crew chief. Then the opportunity to fly F-16s comes and you want to be a great pilot and go out into combat. Then all of the sudden you realize, ‘Holy smokes, the doors are open and I’m qualified to put in for the Thunderbird mission.

“And that’s the thing. The mission is not just flying the jets. It’s so important to be able to tell not only your story but also the story of the people you are representing that are serving out there.

“There are more than 40,000 deployed in 90-plus countries right now. For the leadership to have faith in me that I will go out and represent those stories accurately, that’s a great honor.”

Reed, 27, one of just two F-16 flying crew chiefs in the Air Force, echoed those sentiments.

“Ultimately, to be able to represent the people serving all across the globe, it’s an honor to be able to continue the tradition of the Thunderbirds.”

Reed said he’d gotten to watch the Thunderbirds when he was first stationed as an Airman at Nellis Air Force base.

“You only dream of that job,” he said. “You put in a package and hope to get selected.”

The Thunderbirds, first established in 1953 and since charged with “demonstrating the professionalism of Airmen and the capabilities of modern air power,” is an Air Combat Command unit composed of eight pilots (including six demonstration pilots), four support officers, four civilians and more than 100 enlisted personnel performing in almost 30 job specialties.

Thunderbirds 1-6 fly in the air show demonstrations, Thunderbird 7 is the operations officer and Petz (Thunderbird 8) is the advance pilot and show narrator. Thunderbirds 9-12 offer support roles in medical, administation, maintenance and public affairs.

Each traveling aircraft is assigned a crew chief and assistant crew chief to ensure the jet is always mission ready.

Three of the six demonstration pilots change every year and officers serve a two-year tour.

“There’s a continuity so that three stay on to train the next three, then those three train the three after that,” Petz said.

Each officer must submit letters of recommendation and comprehensive career records in their application package.

Semifinalists for the squadron accompany the team on a deployment for first-hand evaluation and familiarization. Applicants are pre-screened for flying experience and ability.

Finalists perform an evaluation flight with formation flying and basic flight maneuvers.

“You put in a package and just hope to get selected,” Reed said. “I was lucky enough to get selected in 2011. It’s great not only to work on F-16s but to meet the public and put a smile on kids’ faces.”

The show will be a bit of a throwback to the airport’s roots. The Carson Valley Airport got its start in 1942 when the Dangberg family deeded the land to Douglas County and the United States Congress appropriated funding for a potential military base and landing field.

The air field, though, was never fully developed as a military base. Instead, US Army Air Corps pilots trained there through the Army Air Forces War Service Training Detachment.

In three passes over the Valley Sunday evening, Petz and Reed began mapping out the basics of what August’s show will be. They left their most-recent show in Lancaster, Calif., on Sunday afternoon and were over the Valley within 45 minutes.

“Then it was another four minutes up to Reno,” Petz said with a laugh. “We could have made it in about 26 minutes but we took our time.
“We were low on fuel. We did three passes, checked the five mile radius we’ll be flying during the performance, looked for any obstructions or potential issues. There is some high-rising terrain to the West. The goal is just to build a picture and site survey so when I go back and talk to the team, I can say here is what they are intending for us to do, this is what FAA is allowing us to do, here is how we are going to safely fly our show.

“It’s about building our situational awareness of the Minden area before we bring the out the large footprint of the F-16 Thunderbirds.”

Petz said he is already looking at sunset times, weather patterns and wind patterns into August.

“The public does not understand how much planning goes into an air show,” he said. “Locally, they are working with the FAA, establishing a sterilized aerobatic box for doing aerobatic maneuvers where there won’t be traffic or people standing around.

“We’re working with (Minden Tahoe Airport Manager) Bobbi Thompson, making sure the air field is right, the runway is long enough. There is a lot of work that goes into putting eight F-16s on your ramp and having a C-17 come in with the heavy support.

“Countless numbers of people are doing thankless jobs to make this happen. It’s a big team effort.”

For more information on the Aviation Roundup, visit http://www.aviationroundup.com.



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