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Thunderbirds soar into 2006

NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. -- The United States Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron is set for a busy and historic season in 2006, including more than 70 demonstrations in 27 states.

The team will also be making history with the first female demonstration team pilot in the United States. Capt. Nicole Malachowski from Las Vegas, Nev., will be flying in the Number 3 position, as the right wing, and will help the team to represent the more than 530,000 Airmen throughout the U.S.

The team’s first performance was June 8, 1953, at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. Since then, the Thunderbirds have flown before more than 400 million people at more than 3,800 air demonstrations in all 50 states and 59 foreign countries.

“Our job is to demonstrate the professional qualities the Air Force develops in the people who fly, maintain and support the aircraft,” said Maj. Jeremy Sloane, the team’s operations officer. “We are a mirror-image of every other front-line fighter unit in the Air Force. Every member of the team is critical to the success of the mission.”

“Because of military budget cuts and downsizing, a perception exists that the Air Force is out of the hiring business. Quite the contrary. That’s why the Thunderbirds are here. Our red, white and blue jets are a vivid reminder to young people that the Air Force is still hiring,” said Major Sloane. “We need more than 24,000 new recruits this year alone.”

The team is assigned to the 57th Wing at Nellis AFB and made up of eight pilots (six demonstration pilots), four support officers, four civilians and more than 120 enlisted in 28 career fields. Between March and November, the Thunderbirds average nearly 70 demonstrations, keeping them on the road more than 220 days.

“During the demonstration, the pilots fly some of the same maneuvers that every Air Force pilot learns in initial training,” said Major Sloane. “Safety is paramount and key to planning the demonstration maneuvers.”

The Thunderbird diamond formation, flying an average distance between 18 inches and 3 feet apart, represents the skills and training of every U.S. Air Force pilot.

“Because of the aircrafts’ proximity to each other, there’s little margin for error,” explained Captain Malachowski, right wing. “We have tremendous confidence and trust in each other and our capabilities.”

Thunderbird solo pilots’ job is to highlight the capabilities and max perform the F-16C Fighting Falcon to the world.

More than 90 aircraft maintainers ensure the Thunderbirds’ fleet of 11 F-16s are mission capable and the pilots strap themselves into a safe and reliable aircraft every time. Without their dedication, attention to detail and long hours of preparing for the performance, the demonstration may not be possible, said Major Sloane.

“It’s an honor for us to represent the Air Force,” said Master Sgt. Tim Bollinger, the team’s sortie support flight chief. “It means a lot to all of us representing the quality of the pilots, maintainers and aviation support people who continue to make the U.S. Air Force the best in the world.”

Twenty-two maintainers who show they have the initiative and the drive it takes to keep the team’s F-16s mission ready are assigned directly to an aircraft as a crew chief.

In addition to pilots and maintainers, there are an additional 30 people behind the scenes supporting the Thunderbird mission in operations, communications, administration, supply and public affairs.

Watching a Thunderbird performance provides only a small glimpse into how 530,000 Air Force professionals perform every day.

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