Birds of a feather may flock together – but not all of them fly

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Kristina Overton
  • United States Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron
Editors Note: This is part one of a two-part series highlighting the multiple Air Force occupations necessary to ensure the Thunderbirds can perform demonstrations at home and while traveling. 

Of the 120 Airmen who wear the uniform of a United States Air Force Thunderbird, only 12 of them are officers. Of those officers, eight are certified fighter pilots. Of those eight, only six fly in aerial demonstrations.

Where flying is concerned, there are two things every Thunderbirds fan can identify with: the ornate paint scheme of the F-16, and inside it, six of the Air Force's best pilots. But the squadron can't survive with jets and pilots alone. The numbers don't lie - There are six additional officers and more than 100 enlisted personnel from nearly 30 career fields who work to ensure the success of the team's mission. To function as well as it does, the team must maintain, sustain and support each other to help share the Air Force story.

"Obviously, in our service we fly planes for a living, so being able to take care of those airplanes is crucial to being able to perform our mission all around the world ," said Maj. Lucas Buckley, the team's  maintenance officer. "Maintenance is critical to that mission, and us showcasing how we do that demonstrates the knowledge and capabilities of our members."

The maintenance professionals are in charge of the 11 F-16 Fighting Falcons used for aerial demonstrations. They perform scheduled maintenance on the aircraft, but also remain flexible for any unscheduled repairs that are reported by the pilots during the season. In a traditional "gray" unit, pilots are able to be more hands-on, ensuring the safety of their jet by conducting inspections, checking forms and ensuring the aircraft is safe. Here, where demonstration pilots are faced with flying multiple sorties daily, enlisted maintainers solely take on that responsibility.

"It's a very trusting relationship," Buckley said. "Every time these guys go to do a task, whether as simple as refueling or as complex as changing a flight surface or tire, they have to make sure the job is done correctly from start to finish and that the technical orders are followed to the 'T.' We are doing full inspections to make sure the aircraft is safe, and we are signing off on each one to say it's ready to perform the demonstration in. Essentially, the pilots are putting their lives in our hands on a daily basis, and for maintenance that can't be taken lightly."  

Maintenance positions include: tactical aircraft maintenance, aircraft fuel systems, aircraft electrical environmental systems, aircraft armament systems, aircraft structural maintenance, aircraft metals technology, aerospace propulsion, aerospace ground equipment, non-destructive inspection, aircrew egress systems and avionics systems.

Being able to properly maintain the aircraft is essential to their functionality, but there are also other components that are important in making sure that each pilot's takeoff is successful. Positions that help sustain the jets through direct support include jobs like material management, aircrew flight equipment, radio frequency transmission systems, aviation resource management, plans and schedules and others.

"Every career field in the squadron is important, and being here allows you to see how each contributes to the big picture," said Tech. Sgt. Tania Mitchell, plans and scheduling noncommissioned officer in charge. "It takes everyone to make the mission happen. Maintenance needs material management to provide the tools they need to fix the jets, or (aircrew flight equipment) to fit the pilots for their helmets and G-suits, or communications to repair the radios. Without each piece, we couldn't function as well as we do."

The career fields that help sustain the squadron's ability to fly are just as vital in the rest of the Air Force. In order to fly, individuals are in charge of airspace scheduling, monitoring or repairing of radio frequencies, filing documentation, scheduling maintenance, ordering aircraft parts and a series of other responsibilities needed for the squadron to operate.

"I view it as a mini mobile wing," Mitchell said. "But here I actually get the opportunity to get to know about the other career fields and step outside of my primary duties a little bit. In any unit, we might have limited exposure with other careers. You just know the people who do similar jobs, but I love that I have a better view of everyone's contribution and I have grown to appreciate them and what they do."

And there's also the non-operational part of the Thunderbirds mission, which is where you'll find Airmen assigned to support sections. Job specialties in that category include financial management, public affairs, education and training, personnel, Air Force recruiting and others.

Each member of the Thunderbirds is an Airman first, and must comply with all required Air Force training and appointments. Without the support of these positions, the mission would fail.

"While we may not work on the flightline, you still need someone working to maintain your records or ensuring that your computer functions properly at your workstation so you can focus on what you need to accomplish," said Tech. Sgt. Shayla DeVore, commander support section NCO in charge . "There is so much that goes into each field, and knowing the value of everyone's contribution really helps to gain perspective."

That perspective is what helps so many Thunderbirds Airmen describe their Air Force experience to the public and to fellow servicemembers, which is the one job responsibility they all have in common.

"I have a better understanding of the Air Force as a whole, and I think that once I leave here, having that working knowledge of what people do will only help me in the future," DeVore said. "Everyone has a part and purpose on this team. Everyone is a meaningful part of what makes this squadron and even the Air Force successful, and that is part of the message we get to share with the world."

For more information on job descriptions for the Air Force, visit www.airforce.com/careers/. Airmen in joining the Thunderbirds should speak with their supervisor to learn more.