Thunderbirds Pilot Seeks to Inspire Girls and Boys

VIENNA TOWNSHIP, Ohio -- Seeing the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds demonstration team hopefully will serve as the kind of inspiration it did for Maj.  Caroline Jensen, she says.   

Jensen is one of six demonstration pilots -- and only the third woman -- for the Thunderbirds, which will headline the Thunder over the Valley Air Show this weekend. She was among the pilots who arrived Tuesday at Youngstown Air Reserve Station in advance of the event. Eight pilots few in for the event, including the director of operations and the advance pilot/narrator, who arrived Monday.

YARS is one of just 16 Air Force bases around the world that is staging an air show this year, said Col. James Dignan, commander of the 910th Airlift Wing which is stationed at YARS. It is also among a limited number of bases that are allowed to have military aircraft on static display due to budget cuts and other factors, he said. The event begins at 9 a.m. Saturday and Sunday, with demonstrations running from noon to 5 p.m. 

“The Thunderbirds is a great recruiting tool,” Jensen, an Air Force Reserve major who is in her third and final year as a demonstration pilot for the Thunderbirds, Jensen said.

“Our commander always likes to talk about how less than a percent of citizens of the United States actually sign up to defend the country. So when you look at the all-volunteer force we have, it’s a great recruiting tool to get people to come in and just be interested,” she said.

Jensen was interested in joining the Thunderbirds “because that’s what inspired me to join the Air Force,” she recalled. At age 13, the River Falls, Wis., native said, her father took her to see the show “and I knew immediately I wanted to be a fighter pilot and that’s what I got to do,” she said.

“There’s stories like that all over. It’s a good touchstone for a lot of Americans,” she added.

A pilot for 18 years, Jensen started flying gliders at the Air Force Academy, she said. She was commissioned 16 years ago and served for six months in Iraq, where she flew 200 hours in F-16 aircraft in combat. She has also flown the T-38 “quite a bit,” she said.

The six demonstration pilots are part of the 120-member Thunderbird team. About 60 will be at YARS performing various functions this weekend, from driving the vehicles that take pilots to where they need to be to making sure the airspace is available for the demonstration. Each hour the aircraft fly requires six hours of work to get it ready, she said.

Being a pilot with the Thunderbirds demonstration team is “extremely mentally and physically demanding,” Jensen acknowledged. The team, which is based at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, is away from home 220 days out of the year. “It’s great. It’s a lot of fun,” she added.  

The best part of serving with the Thunderbirds is meeting with kids during visits to schools, community events and at the air shows where the pilots perform. “I love to have that little kid come up to me and say, ‘I want to be you,’ because that’s who I was back when I was 13 years old,” she remarked. “I love the idea of helping to create dreams for somebody else.”

Jensen acknowledged the public reacts differently to her because they don’t expect to see a woman in that role of fighter pilot. “I have a 5-year-old son at home and it’s just as important for me to have the little boys see me as it is with the little girls,” she said. “The girls have someone they can identify with, and the boys, it kind of frees up some of the limits they might put on [themselves] or some of the expectations of what women can do.”

Following her tour with the Thunderbirds, Jensen said she would be stationed in Washington, D.C. serving as a legislative liaison. She hopes someday to be assigned command of her own squadron. “It’s will depend on what the needs of the Air Force Reserve are,” she said.

Information about the show, including the various demonstrations, is available at the show’s website, Parking is available at Eastwood Field in Niles and Delphi-Packard Electric Systems in Warren, with a $5 transport charge per person to and from the air base.

Copyright 2014 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.
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