By the last week of February, the Thunderbirds are putting the final touches on the complete demonstration. The Commander of Air Combat Command (COMACC) observes a private approval demonstration, with a keen eye toward safety and execution. Once he signs off, we are ready to hit the road and transition to our show season!
Life on the road has a different pace, and while the days aren’t usually as long, we now work six days a week. Our typical show season week goes as follows:
Thursdays are the day we deploy to a show site. We typically take a Boeing C-17A Globemaster III, but two or even three Lockheed-Martin C-130s are not uncommon, either.
We do not have dedicated airlift like the Blue Angels–except on overseas tours. Thursdays can be long because we can meet as early as 0400, have a flight up to 6 hours long, and start working the moment we land.
We will arrive around an hour before the jets, and when they arrive in the airspace, they will do a site survey. The survey is an evolution set aside for the pilots to verify the airspace, landmarks, and any possible obstructions or safety concerns. Once the F-16Cs land at the show site, we will fix any discrepancies and prepare them for the rehearsal the following day.
Friday mornings usually start with community outreach: we speak to thousands of high school and college students each year. We also visit pediatric units at various hospitals to brighten young kids’ days! After the visits, it’s straight to work to get the jets ready to fly for the rehearsal. While each show profile is exactly the same, the location can have dramatic effect on how the demonstration is performed. Structures, topography, and environmental conditions uniquely change how parts of the demonstration are performed and must be taken into account.
Flying a show at 6000ft elevation on a hot summer day is much different than a show over the beach in the spring. Ramp conditions and setup also affect how we as “show line” maintainers perform our ground show. Friday’s rehearsal allows us to have the safest and sharpest show for the weekend.
After the rehearsal, swing shifters will prepare the jets for the following show day. This includes maintenance and presentation. “Bug 9” is the standard to which the jets are cleaned prior to a show day. One of the more experienced members will inspect every aircraft to ensure every bug is wiped and each jet is without spot or blemish.
For Saturday and Sunday, it’s showtime! These two days are the most consistent, schedule-wise. We arrive 4 to 5 hours before the ground show begins. We prepare the jets and spend a couple hours cleaning and detailing the landing gear and the top of the aircraft. Extra time is built just in case things don’t go as planned, and on a few occasions, we use it to make the show happen.
In the four years I spent on the Thunderbirds, I am proud to say that every show, every weekend, 6 red, white, and blue Vipers took off, performed, and landed. We only lost shows due to sequestration, inclement weather, and venue cancellations. There have been Friday nights where we had only 4 of 8 jets FMC, and by the hard work and dedication of the team, we flew a flawless show the following day.
Monday is the day we return home–or continue to the next show site. This can be somewhat tricky, because we have a little over 12 hours between landing after the demonstration until take off for home the next day. Not only is this quick fix rate for heavier maintenance, but in the morning, we have to be 8 for 8 on aircraft departing.
Once we leave personnel and an aircraft behind, it starts to snowball logistically. There have been many strange circumstances where Thunderbirds are in 4 separate states on a Monday. We somehow get them home or fixed and on to the next show site in time. Against seemingly all odds, the team makes it happen time and time again. Once we make it home in the afternoon, it is still not time to rest.
The first day back at Nellis is not-so-affectionately referred to as “Terrible Tuesdays.”
To maintain proficiency, we must also practice during the week. We are once again fighting for airspace and range time. Early Roll Call times for a 6 turn 6–standard. It’s like a little slice of training season during the week. If there were delayed discrepancies carried over from the weekend, Tuesday is the day to work them with more tools and parts available.
Any scheduled maintenance that may come due the following weekend needs to be accomplished. Most aircraft will require frequent tire changes to meet wet weather criteria. It is the day to manage anything your jet may need, or you as Airmen may need. Whether it’s for touch-up paint on the aircraft itself, or computer-based training, nobody wants to come in on their only day off.
Wednesday is our day off, and for me personally, it’s the day of the week I work toward. Spending time with loved ones reminds us why we do what we do. Changing the lives of thousands every weekend is no small order and I am lucky to have a supportive wife to keep me grounded.
By the time Thursday rolls around, we are ready to do it all again. Lather, rinse and repeat…
(Featured photo: Staff Sgt. Benjamin Ayivorh, Thunderbird 7 dedicated crew chief, prepares an F-16 jet for taxi. U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Manuel J. Martinez)