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Thunderbirds Are Back ... Almost

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Air Force Lt. Col. Greg Moseley, Thunderbird commander

BY JOAN WHITELY -- Next week Las Vegans will be the first to catch a glimpse of the Thunderbird aircraft up in the sky for the first time since April 5, when the precision Air Force flying team stood down for lack of money.

The Thunderbirds expect to take to the air again, starting Monday, for a limited number of flights, in order to re-familiarize the team’s eight pilots with their aircraft, squadron commander Lt. Col. Greg Moseley says. The Air Force’s Air Combat Command announced on July 15 that it has directed some restored funding to grounded squadrons, including the Thunderbird team, which is based at Nellis Air Force Base.

“Our job is to take the team on the road and really represent all of our airmen across the world, retain the folks in our great Air Force, and look to recruit the next generation,” the commander said.

The new funding allows the Thunderbirds to resume training several times a week, only up to Oct. 1, when more money will be required.

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As a result, the team – whose role is to serve as ambassadors and show off American military prowess – will not perform in any air shows for the rest of 2013, Moseley said.

Though the Thunderbirds have periodically “stood down” in the past for safety or other reasons, this hiatus was the first ever due to a sequestering of funds by Congress, according to Moseley.

“Four months is a long time to have a flying squadron down,” he said.

In the months on the ground, the Thunderbird pilots have not been able to maintain their proficiencies – which the Air Force calls “currencies” – by using the airplane instruments or executing actual landings. Instead, the pilots have practiced on Nellis flight simulators to retain a degree of their skills. They also have rehearsed emergency procedures and reviewed textbooks and manuals. But these tools, Moseley admitted, are no replacement for actual flying, since the team executes difficult formations that sometimes place the wingtips of its F-165 Fighting Falcons as close as 18 inches apart.

“We’re definitely beginning to crawl before we walk, and walk before we run,” is how Mosely explained the process.

It’s not yet clear whether the Air Force’s Air Combat Command will allot more hours to the Thunderbirds even if more funds arrive, since the top priority is to apply new funding to combat squadrons that have been grounded or forced to reduce their activity.

“If every combat unit or unit preparing to go to combat is poised to go to combat safely and effectively, then we should get hours” to start touring again in 2014, the Thunderbirds commander concluded. “Our Air Force leadership is making some very difficult decisions.”

 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

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