In 1953, the U.S. Air Force created a demonstration team and for almost 60 years now, this team has taken to the skies with precision, professionalism and pride.
They are the United States Thunderbirds and the pilots that maneuver these mighty birds soar with great skill and grace – at times, just 18 inches away from each other. They roar at Mach speeds and defy gravity. I grew up going to the Wings Over Homestead Air Show with my family. I marveled at the great majesty of these jets that did “cool tricks,” manned by those who protected our country. My brother and I would sit on the roof and watch the red, white and blue bellies of the Thunderbirds shoot through the sky practicing for the air show.
So naturally, taking to the skies in an actual Thunderbird to give our community a glimpse into what they do, was not only a great honor but a true dream. My pilot, Lt. Col. Jason “Buzzer” Koltes, was happy to take a fan into the sky. “This flight is for you today,” he told me. Lt. Col. Koltes has logged close to 3,000 hours as an Air Force pilot.
I learned the flight plan, the cockpit, emergency procedures, and of course, about all the fun we’d have: “at the end of the runway we’re going to pull a few G’s and that’s the gravitation.” The force of gravity on my body when we pulled hard turns and high speeds was exciting, but required training on how to adapt the body. The team’s flight doctor, Major Michael Carletti, taught me how to clench my muscles and keep the blood in my brain when we pulled those G’s. If you don’t, the blood goes straight to your feet and you black out. Who wants to miss the sights of South Florida when you are 16,000 feet over earth? I’m happy to report that I stayed conscious the entire time and got my breathing down pretty well.
The anti-G-suit that Tech Sgt. Craig Hall fitted me with was very cool! A fitted suit – almost like chaps – that were customized to my body. The anti-G suit is tight on your body and is inflated by the plane when you fly at speeds of 400 mph. The suit helps tighten the muscles and keeps your blood in the brain. The technology has been around since the F-16 program started in the 1980’s.
Suited up, trained and more than ready, Jason and I take the walk – you know, that walk – cruising the tarmac to the jet. It played out in slow motion in my head. As I was gearing up, trumpets blared and our national anthem played over the Homestead Air Reserve Base. What an emotional moment. To stand side by side with our U.S. Air Force at attention, before boarding one of its mighty jets.
Cleared for takeoff! “There’s some after burn! 250, 280, 300 miles an hour! A little pull … here we go!” Takeoff was amazing – probably my favorite part of this spectacular experience. Jason took the T-Bird straight up in a salute to our friends on the ground, and he cruised out to a military operations area close to Lake Placid. We flew up to Lake Okeechobee in about 8 minutes. I thought Jason was pulling my leg, but these jets are just that fast! Once we were cleared, Jason pushed it, while I worked on my breathing and tried to take in every single moment. We did barrel rolls, turns that pinned me in my seat, dipped and soared. It was remarkable. So was the 9-G turn I pulled and stayed wide-awake to experience. That’s right, I took on 9 G’s of gravity in a Thunderbird. I have a pin, plaque and video to prove it! “It’s neat to take someone up that is so interested in what we do and that has been watching and pursuing the Thunderbirds from when you were a child,” Jason said once we got back home.
The magnificent experience was one that I will never forget, and the honor of sharing their story humbling.
The Thunderbirds will fly at the Wings Over Homestead Air Show this weekend, as will the U.S. Army Golden Knights parachute team.
Gates open at 8 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday for the free show for families to come out and enjoy. See www.wingsoverhomestead.com for more.