The U. S. Air Force Thunderbirds take highly trained combat pilots and crews to higher levels of precision for top show speed. NASCAR stock cars and NHRA hot rods take top speed to the track, but the last thing they desire is going airborne.
The Thunderbirds performed the flyover for the 2011 Daytona 500 and the team is generous with giving demonstration rides to motorsports drivers.
Las Vegas NASCAR winner Carl Edwards spoke about his ride in an F-16 jet recently.
“Flying with the Thunderbirds was a spectacular opportunity, especially to fly out here in the desert,” Edwards said. “We went to Death Valley and flew over mountain tops upside down and gave some folks in their campers the air show of a lifetime out there. They let me fly the plane which was a lot of fun. The most impressive thing about the whole morning was seeing how these guys operate the Thunderbirds program. It is unreal. They are the best of the best in the Air Force and it shows.”
The Thunderbirds are stationed at nearby Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada and Edwards was appreciative of the Thunderbird hospitality.
“This trophy is going over there in their hanger,” Edwards said. “They taught me a lot about discipline and believing in what you do and I can't thank them enough and all of our armed service personnel who serve everywhere.”
Thunderbird pilot Capt. Nicholas Holmes (No. 4) talked about comparing racing to flying in formation.
Holmes said, “Specifically in regards to how close we fly, race cars drive a lot closer to each other than we fly to each other. We definitely don’t bump each other. We don’t draft. Nothing of the sort.”
Thunderbird pilot Capt. Ryan Riley (No. 4) talked about the speed of a NASCAR stock car and an F-16.
“We’re a lot faster, but the F-16 is just a joy to fly,” Riley said. "We use them as a combat fighter which is very different from what you see now. We’re red, white and blue here, but our combat F-16s are gray. To fly that fast, you get used to it. The first time I flew it was in a little Cessna and 150 knots was really fast and now at 500 or 600 knots you get used to it.”
“Fast” Jack Beckman, an NHRA Funny Car driver and instructor, is familiar with the Air Force having served four years of duty, and his description of his Thunderbird ride is graphic.
"It was like riding a roller coaster on steroids with your eyes closed," Beckman said. "Your view forward is completely obscured by the dash, some of the flight instrumentation and the pilot sitting in front of you. You can see very well out to the sides and up, but you can't tell which way he's going next. And that plane is absolutely amazing. Imagine everything a jet fighter can do and multiply that by three. The F-16 can do more than a human body could ever withstand.”
Team JEGS four-time Pro Stock Car champion Jeg Coughlin Jr. reflected on his Thunderbird ride and would change only one thing.
“I was worked up before the ride that morning, but once we got airborne I was AMAZED at how smooth and precise each acrobatic move was,” Coughlin said. “Clearly, hindsight perfect, getting worked up was a distraction I would have loved to change.”
Maj. JR Williams (No. 6) explained the Thunderbird focus.
“We fly pretty close, but safety is our No. 1 priority,” Williams said. “We practice for six months just working on bringing it in. It’s a building block approach. It makes it almost second nature to us once we get up.
“At some points in the show we are about 18 inches apart—which just shows the precision of the pilots in the United States Air Force. We don’t all fly in the normal tactical world that close, but that’s what we are there to do—to demonstrate the precision that any pilot in the Air Force can do with just a little bit of training.”
Crew chief SSgt. Lance Murphy has the all important job of making sure every part on his assigned Thunderbird F-16 is perfect. Like many NASCAR teams it takes 120 members to properly operate the traveling Thunderbird show.
“I’ve been on the team for just a little over a year,” Murphy said. “I’m amazed at how well we function as a team. That’s exactly what we are, a team, just like you have here with a pit crew on pit road. It’s unreal. I’ve been a part of awesome squadrons in my 10 years in the Air Force and the team work we have, we get stuff done, we get it done right, we get it done fast. We have a mission to perform. You can’t imagine what we do unless you see it on a daily basis.”
More Thunderbird and motorsports analysis coming soon.
FYI WIRZ is the swift presentation of pertinent motorsports topics by Dwight Drum @ Racetake.com.
Photo credit: Dwight Drum @ Racetake.com.