From Big Apple to Las Vegas: Lajes Airman realizes Thunderbirds dream

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Mark Graff
  • 65th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
Riding in his father's New York City taxi cab as a young boy, Gustavo Cifuentes saw an Air Force Thunderbird for the first time. To his surprise, the uniquely styled F-16 wasn't flying overhead, but rather on static display on one of the city's most famous streets.

"The Thunderbirds somehow managed to get one of their aircraft on Park Avenue. They were doing a promotional tour and that was the first time I got to see a Thunderbird," said Cifuentes, an F-16 crew chief currently assigned to Lajes Field's 65th Operations Support Squadron.

Now a staff sergeant in the Air Force, Cifuentes' relationship with the Thunderbirds has come full circle; from that first glimpse of the jet, to his recent selection to join the Air Force's aerial demonstration team later this year.

Reflecting on that moment more than 20 years ago, the opportunity to serve on the Air Force's demonstration team is hard to believe, said Cifuentes.

"It's a very humbling experience to be selected to join the Thunderbirds. It's something surreal. Who would believe that 20-plus years later, I would be joining (the Thunderbirds)?" said Cifuentes, who will become one of more than 120 enlisted Thunderbirds.

As Columbian immigrants to America in the 1980s, the Cifuentes family came from humble beginnings. Before eventually settling in Miami, in search of a better life for his family, Cifuentes' father took the family to New York City.

Despite some obstacles, his family's time in New York City meant a bright future, said Cifuentes. In Cifuentes' case, the path to a bright future led him to the Air Force.

"Being a family of immigrants that came from Columbia, my family came here and all they had were their clothes on their back, but they were hard workers," said Cifuentes. "My mom is now a preschool teacher and my dad owns his own company. They're living the American dream and 'I'm grateful to this country and I would like to join the Air Force' was pretty much my conclusion (on) how I could live a better life (like my parents)."

Some seven years into his Air Force career, with the encouragement of his wife and some fellow servicemembers previously assigned to the Thunderbirds, Cifuentes revisited his childhood interest in the Thunderbirds and applied to the team.

"I spoke with my wife and I just asked her, 'What would you think of me giving the Thunderbirds a try?' I was stationed at Nellis (Air Force Base) before and so my friends would tell me, 'Gus you should come join.' But I felt that the time now, is right," said Cifuentes.

Cifuentes, with his wife's buy-in, submitted his application to the Thunderbirds and was selected for the team only weeks later, a quick turnaround that Cifuentes attributes to the team's offseason from performances.

The notification came as something of a surprise for both Cifuentes, and his wife.

"I check my emails from home sometime, and the next thing you know, I see 'congratulations' and my orders," said Cifuentes, who saw the email late at night. "The next thing I did was wake up my wife and I told her that I got picked. She thought that something bad had happened."

Upon arriving at Nellis AFB, home of the Thunderbirds, Cifuentes will complete the Thunderbirds' "21-Day Program," which is a rigorous training program and orientation period according to the team's website.

Cifuentes' selection to the Thunderbirds comes as no surprise to squadron leadership, said Lt. Col. Shawn Cotton, 65th Operations Support Squadron commander.

"From the moment Staff Sergeant Cifuentes stepped off the plane, we knew he was going to be one of our top performers," said Cotton, himself an F-15C Eagle and B-2 Spirit pilot. "Staff Sergeant Cifuentes is the type of Airman that has the Air Force core values ingrained into his DNA. He continually builds upon his professional and technical abilities, perfecting his craft."

For Cifuentes, the opportunity to join the Thunderbirds is an opportunity bigger than any one man. The opportunity presents a once-in-a-lifetime chance to represent the Air Force in a way most Airmen never experience.

"I'm not just representing myself or my team; I'm representing the whole Air Force. I am showing (the world) the professionalism the Air Force has to show," said Cifuentes. "(I'm showing the world) how hard work makes anything possible. If you want something, you've got to go out and get it."

In the coming months, as the Cifuentes family prepares for their early August departure from Lajes Field, the staff sergeant understands that joining the Thunderbirds will present a whole new set of challenges, both on and off duty.

"It's not going to be easy. I'm going to have to work hard, put in lots of hours and make sacrifices. I'm not going to be able to see my family as much as I want. But I know that there's going to be good to come out of it," said Cifuentes.

On the technical side of things as an F-16 crew chief, Cifuentes admits that each day with the Thunderbirds will be a learning experience.

"I'm always learning. I'm never going to know everything about the aircraft. From the first day I put my foot on the flightline... it's an ongoing process," said Cifuentes. "(I'm going to have to pay) a lot of attention to detail. I'm going to have to be studying."

Cotton notes that selection to the Thunderbirds is not only the pinnacle of an Airman's career, but often a springboard for greater responsibility in the future.

"Only the sharpest, most capable among us are selected for such an opportunity. For most, it is the highlight of their career," said Cotton. "The precision and reliability required of a team member are characteristics that vital to operating combat aircraft, and being selected for the team means that you have mastered those attributes. Thunderbirds represent the very best of their profession."

Cifuentes, reflecting upon his childhood journey and recent Air Force accomplishments, echoes the Chief of Staff of the Air Force's unofficial motto for all Airmen.

"Like General Welsh said, 'all of us have a story to tell.' Living in a five-story apartment in New York City, and now look where I'm living: in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean in the Azores," said Cifuentes. "It just goes to show that if you want something, you've got to go out and get it. You have to make that effort."

The U.S.A.F. Thunderbirds, America's Ambassadors in Blue, begin their 2012 show season schedule February 24 at Daytona, Fla. For more information on the Air Force Thunderbirds, visit the team's website at www.afthunderbirds.com.