By Kenneth Perkins
Fort Worth – To say snagging a coveted assignment as a U.S. Air Force Thunderbird is competitive would be an understatement. Since the aerial team’s beginning in 1953, only 325 officers have flown with the demonstration squadron known for its precision and death-defying speed.
The application process is a long, arduoius and detailed task; a Thunderbird pilot is not even considered unless a minimum of 750 hours of flying fighters has been logged, which could take anywhere between seven and 10 years.
“It’s not a sprint; it’s more like a marathon,” said Thunderbird pilot Maj. Trevor Aldridge of Wichita Falls, who over the weekend flew an F-16 during the Bell Fort Worth Alliance Air Show at Alliance Airport. “It’s definintly a process, but certainly one worth taking.”
The entire Thunderbird team, which travels the world to put on these aerial shows, is only about 160 men and women, so even the non-flying positions are highly-sought.
One of those coveted spots is that of Crew Chief, a certified Air Force Tactical Aircraft Maintainer, which is the job Staff Sargeant Dylan Gagne has held for four years. Gagne found himself, not quite at home in Arlington where he grew up, but close.
“It’s great to be back and even better to be returning doing this kind of job in the Air Force,” Gagne said. “Growing up in DFW, I never really envisioned doing something like this, but here I am.”
Thunderbird pilots and Texans like Maj. Aldridge and Lt. Col. Dr. Noel Collis of El Paso attract all the thunder, so to speak, being celebrated Thunderbird pilots. But Gagne and his team are responsible for the care and upkeep of the aircraft. Without them, there would be no show. In fact, The Thunderbirds have not cancelled a show due to maintenance difficulty in its 67-year history.
Once the pilot gets in the plane their only job is to fly without worrying about anything else.
During a rehearsal run for the air show, Gagne and his team waited in formation as the red, white and blue F-16s taxed in to the hangers. As the planes came to a stop, the crew leaped into action, cleaning the aircraft and checking to make sure everything is prepared for the next flight.
“We are always here prior to the team’s arrival to make sure everything is set up and good to go, so when the pilots arrive, they can hit the ground running,” Gagne said. “It makes everything more fluid. We do inspections on the aircraft and work on the hydrolic systems, landing gear, even pull the engines if we have to. A lot of it is making sure the jet is safe to fly. But we do inspections to make sure nothing is wrong or will go wrong on the next flight. That’s pretty much it.”
It is even more than that, said Lt. Col and Operations Officer Kevin DiFalco.
“He’s slightly downplaying his position as No. 8 crew chief,” DiFalco said. “It’s one of the most coveted positions on the team. What he does hinges on making the whole team successful. It’s the most critical thing.
“Typically, we are moving around the country and it’s a new city and new state, back and forth, all over the place. It’s quite a bit of a maintenance footprint, and he has to deal with all that to make sure everything is up and ready to go. It’s a very honorable position to be selected for.”
Capt. Remoshay Nelson, a public affairs officer for the Air Force, said there are two dozen maintenance professionals chosen each season, and their selection is based on job proficiency, dedication to duty, and overall attitude.
“For each Thunderbirds F-16 aircraft that travels, you have a crew chief and an assistant crew chief assigned to it,” Nelson said. “The important thing is ensuring that the jet is always mission-ready.”
Lt. Col DiFalco said crew chiefs must have good attention to detail, be a team player, diligent and have “a positive attitude. That helps doing something like this.”
As one might expect, it involves lots of training.
“After basic military training, I went to tech school for two months and did more training after that,” DiFalco said. “At that point you’re ready for operational Air Force and doing more on-the-job training when you get to your first unit.”
Gagne, who travels next to Rome, GA, Orlando, FLA, and New Orleans before returning to San Antonio, said as he got clsoer to high school graduation, he had a chat with his mother about enlisting.
“I was bouncing between Air Force or Marines, and my mom said, ‘Let’s do Air Force,’” Gagne said. “I’ve always been mad about airplanes. Always liked being around them. Now doing this is like a dream, really.”