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Q&A with a U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds pilot

Thunderbird pilot Maj. Whit Collins in front of his F-16 after arriving at the Abbotsford Airshow on Aug. 8. Collins trained for eight years as a fighter pilot before becoming a member of the Thunderbirds.

The Thunderbirds will be putting on multiple demos at the Abbotsford Airshow this weekend

Interview with Thunderbirds pilot Maj. Whit Collins, Aug. 8, 2019.

Q: What’s it like training to become a Thunderbird pilot? Similar to the movie Top Gun?

A: Some yes, most no. What I will tell people is flying to me is the ultimate freedom.

I don’t know if you saw us when we were coming in but the weather was kind of scattered and was a lot more broken than it is right now. Normally, you’d have to go way out two miles left and come right in and we were just fighting the clouds. This jet is so maneuverable we were able to get down below the clouds do a really tight spin and land. That would have taken most airplanes like five minutes for the approach.

The training is a lot of fun, it’s a lot of work, but you do just a little bit at a time. So one thing I like to tell people that think they might want to become a pilot is: if you look at these jets they are very intimidating, they are very fast, they pull a lot of G’s, but no one starts out flying those. You start out flying [Snowbirds], that’s what I started flying, and then you kind of work your way up. The air force trained me in such a way that I always felt ready for the next step. I never felt like I was getting in over my head, I felt prepared and ready to go.

Q:How long did it take?

A: So to become a Thunderbird you have to have 750 hours of flying fighters, so that could take somewhere between seven and 10 years. So for me it was about eight years.

And to take that experienced fighter pilot from the air force and train them to become a Thunderbird, we have a training season that runs from November to March. So just a couple months right there for applying training every day, twice a day, for that whole time. We probably fly about four or five times more than your average air force pilot.

We do the same repeatable things. It’s kind of like a sport. You develop muscle memory just trying to perfect that one task you’re working on.

Q: What do you think of the F-16?

A: I’m partial to it because I’ve been flying the F-16 my entire career. You don’t necessarily have to be an F-16 pilot to become a Thunderbird, we take people from any fighter aircraft that’s out there. But it’s a superb machine: it goes twice the speed of sound, pulls nine G’s, if you look at the canopy its one solid piece of transparency with no metal to obstruct your vision.

Are the Thunderbirds a tight-knit group of pilots?

It is, yeah. We call ourselves a family, the whole squad. The whole team is only about 160 people big. The officers, the pilots, you know, we fly with each other at the same time, every time. So most of the [pilots] you see out here working on the show-line are the ones that travel to every show-site. It has to be tight-knit because we’re around each other more than our own families.