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Vacaville man soars as Thunderbirds pilot

Maj. Matt Kimmel, right, of Vacaville, stands in front of his U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds jet at Travis Air Force Base, Thursday, March 28, 2019. The team will perform at the 2019 Thunder Over the Bay air show, Saturday, March 30 and Sunday, March 31, 2019. (Robinson Kuntz/Daily Republic)
Major Matt Kimmel, right, of Vacaville, stands in front of his U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds plane at Travis Air Force Base on Thursday, March 28, 2019. The squadron is performing at the 2019 'Thunder Over the Bay' Air Show on March 30 & 31. (Robinson Kuntz/Daily Republic)

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE — The youth who got his first flying experience flying a Cessna at the Nut Tree Airport is returning as a U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds pilot.

Maj. Matt Kimmel of Vacaville will be able to see Vacaville High School where he graduated in 2004 while performing some of the maneuvers with the Air Force’s premiere aerial demonstration team.

“It is awesome,” Kimmel said of being able to show his flying skills before a crowd that will include hometown friends and family this weekend during Travis Air Force Base’s Thunder Over the Bay open house and air show.

Maj. Matt Kimmel, who grew up in Vacaville, is a U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds pilot who will perform in the Thunder Over the Bay air show at Travis Air Force Base, Saturday, March 30 and Sunday, March 31, 2019. (Robinson Kuntz/Daily Republic)
Maj. Matt Kimmel, who grew up in Vacaville, is a U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds pilot who will perform in the Thunder Over the Bay air show at Travis Air Force Base, Saturday, March 30 and Sunday, March 31, 2019. (Robinson Kuntz/Daily Republic)

Kimmel said he is also happy to make his mother, NorthBay VacaValley Hospital Intensive Care Unit nurse Jenny Kimmel, proud. He predicted she will be cheering the loudest during the performances.

Kimmel stressed that he and his fellow Thunderbirds will be there to inspire youth that attaining a career like becoming a Thunderbirds pilot or their equally skilled support crews is possible.

“I hope to make the vets there proud of their Air Force,” Kimmel

said, and to show Travis’ own airmen and their families “that we are thinking of them and are proud of what they do.”

It was stories told by his grandfather, an F-4U Corsair fighter pilot with the Royal New Zealand Air Force, that initially inspired Kimmel to be an Air Force pilot, and was reinforced by seeing Travis Air Force Base aircraft over Vacaville.

He was flying at the Nut Tree Airport by 16. He was attending Vacaville High when 9/11 hit and figured he should join the Air Force with the dream of flying an F-16 “to help the guys on the ground.”

He earned his Air Force officer’s commission after graduating from the University of Southern California.

Kimmel served as an F-16 evaluator pilot at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina before joining the Thunderbirds. He has logged more than 2,160 flight hours, with more than 719 combat hours.

The thrill of flying the high-performance F-16 “is like driving a Ferrari times a thousand,” Kimmel said.

While serving in July 2017 with the 79th Fighter Squadron at Shaw Air Force Base, then-Capt. Kimmel got picked to join the Thunderbirds.

“To grow up and become a Thunderbird pilot and to be looked at by potentially future generations of the Air Force, much like I looked at them when I was a kid, means the world to me,” Kimmel said in a 2017 Air Force interview.

Kimmel was part of the Thunderbirds team last year that performed at the California Capitol Airshow.

He is now the lead solo pilot flying the No. 5 jet and has been flying with the Thunderbirds for two seasons.

Kimmel flew over the Super Bowl earlier this year, calling it an excellent opportunity to both show the Air Force’s mission and “to enjoy some good football.”

Travis’ air show will be the second one of the Thunderbirds’ shows that will see them visit 35 locations this season across North America.

Kimmel will be leaving the Thunderbirds team this November and continue with his Air Force career.

As for the air show this weekend, “I hope everyone has a good time,” Kimmel said.