The United States Air Force Thunderbirds arrive at the Vectren Dayton Air Show in Dayton, Ohio, on Thursday, July 21, 2011. The F-16 air demonstration squadron will headline the show which also features the United States Army Golden Knights Parachute Team and Tora, Tora, Tora. (Tipp News Daily / Andrea Nay)

By Andrea Nay

Courtesy of TippNews DAILY

It’s 98 degrees in the shade, which means it must be time for the annual Vectren Dayton Air Show.  On Thursday, the US Air Force Thunderbirds arrived, and TippNews braved the heat to join them on the flight line. We learned more about the crew, planes, and preparations behind the air demonstration squadron’s weekend performances.

Becoming a Thunderbird

Major J. R. Williams, the pilot of Thunderbird six and the opposing solo in the show,  said it takes around ten years of being an active duty fighter pilot to accumulate enough hours (750) to apply. Maj. Williams has logged more than 1,400 flight hours in the F-15E, F-15C, and F-16C, with 230 hours of combat experience. All members of the Thunderbirds have been stationed in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, with countless missions under their belts.

Williams, 32, is in his first year as a Thunderbird pilot and volunteered for the elite role.  In fact, all team members are volunteers. Their application process can take six to eighteen months. “It’s not just handed to you,” Williams said.

Bringing the F-16 Into Combat

Crew members Senior Master Sergeant Bryan Spangler, Technical Sergeant Joel Banks, and Master Sergeant Christopher Roehm spoke with us about their own combat experiences. They don’t mind being compared to characters in fan-favorite Top Gun. Which role would they like to play?  ”It’d have to be Maverick,” said Roehm.

Turning maneuvers in the iconic film into reality, Thunderbird team members have supported Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. They have all been stationed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, with countless missions under their belts.

Banks and Spangler detailed their favorite type of mission, the Wild Weasel.  It’s the war version of flashlight tag. Unlike a stealth mission, the point is to get found. You bait enemy’s surface-to-air missiles into targeting you with their radar. The radar is traced back to the source, allowing your team to attack and destroy the enemy installations.

The Thunderbirds take their name from a supernatural creature in Native American belief systems. According to legend, the beating of the bird’s enormous wings creates thunder and stirs the wind. The aircraft featured in this weekend’s shows are no myth. Block 52 F-16 Fighting Falcons flying jaw-dropping maneuvers over Dayton this weekend were built by Lockheed Martin in the 1990′s and are not retired relics.  They are an active part of the Air Force.  The squadron is stationed at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., team members can be rapidly integrated into fighter units, and the jets can be made combat-ready in less than three days.

“The best feature of the F-16,” said TSgt Banks, “is its ability to fill any role, including both air combat and support for ground troops.”

The exact fighters you’ll see the Thunderbirds using here in Dayton can accurately pinpoint targets in all weather conditions, fly over 500 miles, hit assigned ground targets with precision at night, and defend themselves in the air.

Growing Alternative Fuel in Fairborn

With all of this power comes a need for fuel. The $30+ million jets burn roughly 800 gallons per hour. The Air Force — which aims to use alternative energy sources for at least half of its flights by 2016 — took a step forward when the Thunderbirds certified camelina flower-based biofuel for the F-16 during a performance at Andrews Air Force Base in May. Major Williams said there was no perceptible difference with the alternative fuel, even when putting the jets through their most demanding aerial stunts. Alternative jet fuel is not used regularly yet because of its exorbitant cost.

Williams paid a special thank you to local men and women for their role in developing the biofuel option. Wright-Patterson Air Force Base is home to the USAF Alternative Fuels Certification Office, and University of Dayton Research Institute engineers at the Air Force Research Laboratory are working with industry and academic partners to research renewable options. Members of that team were on hand in Maryland as the Thunderbirds tried out the camelina mix in May.

What’s Ahead?

TippNews will be on site at Dayton International Airport throughout the Air Show weekend. What would you like to know about the displays and performers? Submit your questions in the comments section below, and we’ll do our best to get them answered.

Photo Gallery

Find the rest of the Thunderbirds arrival shots in my gallery.