The USAF Thunderbirds arrived in Melbourne FL for their first show of the 2018 season in grand style! The Thunderbirds are an impressive group of talented pilots and team members that make up an incredible show team.
The Thunderbirds Flight Surgeon, #9 Captain Glen Goncharow, and I had something in common! He was stationed at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base North Carolina as a flight surgeon, where Hubby and I were stationed when newly married. It is also the exact medical facility where I used to work as a civil servant. Hubby used to refuel the Thunderbirds when he flew the KC-135 as well as the KC-10. So I knew I had to request an interview with him. Such a fun conversation! Before joining the team, Captain Goncharow served as Flight Commander for the 4th Aerospace Medical Operations, and Flight Surgeon for the 333rd and 336th Expeditionary Fighter Squadrons at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C.
During my interview with Captain Goncharow he stated how honored and humbled he is to represent the Thunderbirds as well as being able to help and care for them and their families. He mentioned how rigorous the physical exertion of each mission is on all of the pilots. According to Captain Goncharow weight training is great preparation for extensive exertion whenever they fly the aircraft. Both of his grandfathers, both of whom are military veterans, on both sides of his family were major influences in his life growing up. I noticed on his professional biography that Captain Goncharow was an Eagle Scout. I asked him about his Eagle Scout service project. His grandmother was at a nursing home while he was in high school and there wasn’t really any place where the residents could comfortably visit, so he built benches for those visits. He also was instrumental in landscaping the area surrounding the nursing home. People then had a nice place to visit the elderly and loved ones at the nursing home. Captain Goncharow enjoys being able to reach out to communities by encouraging young people and bringing attention to the USAF Thunderbirds. Being deployed while stationed at Seymour Johnson AFB allowed his wife and then very young daughter to be near his parents in Greensboro. Family definitely makes those deployments much more tolerable, especially when having young children.
The Thunderbird pilots and team members were so hospitable and approachable as they spent time answering questions and chatting with the media. They were authentic with genuine smiles as they spoke about how they each truly enjoy what they do for a living while serving their country.
To be awarded media credentials, once again, was nothing short of thrilling. The weather in Melbourne FL was perfect as the Thunderbirds arrived on Thursday prior to the weekend show, with cool temperatures, no clouds and probably just a tad too much sunshine! But I was able to capture some beautiful shots that I am so excited to share with you. The crew members that I spoke to were so gracious and kind. I did my homework ahead of time by reading their biographies online. I noticed another similarity with one of the pilots, #5, as he is from Georgia. I was also able to request a personal interview with #5 Major Whit Collins, on the day the Thunderbirds arrived into Melbourne.
As a military brat, Major Collins moved around quite a bit and then settled in Warner Robbins. The military runs deep in the family history of Major Collins. His Grandfather was in WWII, the Korean War, and Vietnam. His Uncle was in the Alabama Air National Guard. His Dad also proudly served in the military.
When Major Collins was around 9-10 years old he was at an Air Show at Warner Robbins. His mom stopped a Thunderbird pilot to speak to her son! That particular Thunderbird pilot was extremely gracious as he took the time to speak to a then very young Whit, at his level….on his knees. That pilot had a tremendous influence on Major Collins as a young boy which leads him now to do the same with young people when he speaks to them.
When deployed and flying in the Middle East, the longest sortie he flew, including being refueled was right at 7 hours. That’s a long time, being in that small cockpit of an F-16! Major Collins found out while on deployment to Bagram Airfield (also known as Bagram Air Base) that he was selected to be a USAF Thunderbird. Bagram Airfield is in Afghanistan and is about 60 kilometers north of the capital Kabul. He went from being a combat pilot in Afghanistan to an airshow pilot. Quite a contrast for sure!
When I read Major Collins’ biography prior to the airshow, I noticed on his name tag, directly on his official photograph, his number 5 was upside down. Surely the people who review those photos should have noticed the error, I thought! When Hubby and I were looking at his airplane up close upon landing, we noticed the 5 is also upside down on the intake of his F-16 aircraft. So it must not be a mistake on his nametag after all! I decided that would be one of my questions for Major Collins. It’s always fun to learn new things, right!? Well, Major Collins told me since a lot of his flying maneuvers are upside down, when those of us are taking pictures, it becomes very evident which aircraft Major Collins is in since the 5 then becomes right-side up. All of his upside-down photos have a very prominent #5 in the correct position! So cool! And jokingly he said, he can just look down at his name tag to remember what number he is! A Thunderbird with a sense of humor…..love it!!
Just look at the photo above to be reminded how dangerous a mission of flying can be, even at air shows. Did you notice the bird present in this photo? Bird strikes can be extremely dangerous and cause catastrophic damage to aircraft which can also result in injury to the pilot as well.
As I am looking through these photographs, I began to think and wonder how in the world do the pilots see each other through all of the smoke and bright sunshine glare during the performance! It really does get pretty foggy and sunny for us on the ground to see the Thunderbirds, I can’t imagine trying to do the next maneuver and know where my team members are at all times. Just another challenging aspect of being a Thunderbird pilot! I am so impressed!
There were all different ages at the air show. Look at this cutie-pie sitting on his Dad’s shoulders! Such a great tradition to start at such a young age. I hope this little fella can go with his Dad every year!
Saturday, Day 1 of the air show was a bit warmer with some haze and tremendous amounts of glare as I was shooting up towards the sun. Still such a gorgeous day to capture the precision and expertise of the Thunderbirds, B-2 Stealth Bomber, P-51 Mustang, B-17 “Memphis Belle” and other smaller aircraft showing off their abilities. It was more than enjoyable to soak it all in! It really is exhilarating for me at every air show! Honestly, it’s like Christmas morning as a little kid!
When I was giving my business card to Major Collins, he asked about the gluten-free aspect of my blog. He then told me that the #10 team member Captain Lauren Venturini was also gluten-free! Well, I high tailed it over to Captain Venturini to talk to her as well.
Captain Venturini is in fact gluten-free. I can only imagine how difficult it is for her to find quality gluten-free foods while on the road (or in the air!) as much as she is. To try to eat healthy and gluten-free is tough enough a lot of the time under normal circumstances! Captain Venturini was so sweet and pleasant. I asked her what she felt was the most important part of her job as the Executive Officer on the Thunderbirds Team. She said she loves talking to young people at schools or Air Force Recruiting Stations to encourage them to dream big and to tell them they can be anything they want to be! That’s exactly what our young people need to hear Captain Venturini! Captain Venturini mentioned she really enjoys the sense of family and camaraderie of being a part of the team. What a huge family of “brothers” she has!
What a pleasure and a delight to be able to have had the opportunity to speak to each of these three individuals. How gracious, genuine, and engaging each was as they were not in a hurry to get anywhere. They gave me their undivided attention as I was able to ask them questions (or to share a couple of gluten-free apps with Captain Venturini!) They were equally kind and respectful to everyone who came up to them for autographs following the show. The team members were willing to chat and pose for photos with everyone. It really was so nice and quite impressive to see how down-to-earth each member was. My hat goes off to Captain Venturini, Captain Goncharow, and Major Collins. I appreciate each of you and the dedication you each put into your jobs. It is evident you are all humbled and proud to be serving your country. Thank you each for your service and sacrifice. What an excellent air show to have the privilege to be up close and personal!
Captain Venturini was so classy and professional in her tailored flight suit from her shiny black polished boots, to her just so placed cap and powder pink nail polish. A girl after my own heart, pink is my favorite color!
The United States Special Operations Command (U.S. SOCOM) Parachute Team, called the Para-Commandos, is composed of volunteers from the United States Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and U.S. government civilians who are assigned to Special Operations Command. They are selected for the team after a rigorous training program. They participate with the U.S. SOCOM Parachute Team in addition to their regular duties, with training conducted during off-duty time.
Formed in 1991, the US SOCOM Parachute Team represents the elite of the United States armed services, its Special Operations Forces (SOF). Team members are trained for a variety of combatant and humanitarian missions. One of the many techniques used for undetected infiltration into enemy zones is the dangerous and difficult military freefall (MFF) operation, which was demonstrated at this air show.
The majority of the 47,000 US SOCOM Para-Commandos are Army Rangers & Special Forces (Green Berets), Navy Seals, Air Force combat controllers, pararescuemen & combat crew airmen, US Marine Corps Forces Special Operators, Army Civil Affairs & Psychological Operations forces. This special operations command provides fully capable special operations forces to defend the United States and its interests as well as plans and synchronizes operations against terrorist networks. Nothing short of an impressive group of individuals!
Check out this beaut! The B-17 Flying Fortress in all its glory! This is a replica of the Memphis Belle that flew during WWII. She has continued wearing the paint scheme and nose art of the original Memphis Belle and continues to fly today to honor our veterans as well as educate current and future generations to bring attention to the high price of freedom and to also preserve our national aviation heritage.
The B-2 Stealth Bomber was fascinating to watch flying! This was the first time to see it flying in person for me. Not for Hubby though, he has actually air refueled this aircraft back in the day! Can you believe it is designed to avoid virtually all detection using a variety of technologies that reduce reflection, emission of radar, infrared and visible light! The ultimate spy plane!!! So incredibly cool!!
The B-2 has the capacity to carry up to 40,000 pounds of weapons, including conventional and nuclear weapons, precision-guided munitions, gravity bombs and a range of maritime weapons. It is capable of all-altitude attack missions up to 50,000 feet!
This P-51 Mustang, a WWII aircraft, has just taken off at the Melbourne Air & Space Show. Notice the wheels turning on their side as they are going up into the wheel wells?
This P-51 Mustang doing some fun upside maneuvers! How fun for this pilot to just show off by doing all sorts of loops and turns, right-side up and up-side down!
I sure hope you have enjoyed this feature post! It was tough to narrow down the selections of photos I chose. It was definitely challenging to capture clear photos on such a bright, sunny day. What a thrill it was for me to be able to photograph such wonderful aircraft with incredible history in addition to being able to speak with the Thunderbird Team Members. It was the best weekend ever! Please let me know which photograph you like the best by just commenting below.