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Thunderbirds return to Thunder in the Valley air show

WATERLOO — Officially, the featured performers for the Thunder in the Valley II air show Aug. 23-24 are designated the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron.

The 120-person unit, though, is better known by another name -- Thunderbirds -- a perfect handle conjuring up imagery fitting for America's finest airmen and aircraft.

The legendary squadron is in its 61st season and earlier this year marked its 2,000th demonstration in the F-16 Fighting Falcon. They return to the Waterloo Regional Airport after appearing in 2011.

"The Thunderbirds are coming back. That’s truly an honor for our community and says a great deal for the organizers and volunteers of the last show," says Roger Pease, the air show's chairman.

"The public really accepted them ... and they understood that and appreciated how the crowd behaved with them."

The Thunderbirds began in 1953 at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona and went supersonic three years later with the F-100C Super Sabre. The squadron that year also relocated to Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.

Pilots switched to F-16 fighter jets in 1982. The aircraft are made by Lockheed-Martin and are the Thunderbirds' ninth type used in their storied history.

Mike Wilson is director of the Waterloo airport. He also happens to be a master sergeant in the South Dakota Air National Guard and has worked on F-16s for 14 years.

"I have the privilege of climbing in the cockpit and doing functional checks on the aircraft and I am able work on them -- while they are running ... ," Wilson said.

"Yet still, every time I see an F-16 go up for a flight, I stand there and watch in awe until it is out of sight. I love the roar of the engine as the aircraft is blasting down the runway," he adds.

"It may be cliche, but it really is the sound of freedom."

Capt. Lucas Buckley of Rosemount, Minn., serves as the Thunderbirds' maintenance officer, and on the team's website talks about the F-16s.

“The aircraft is fast, loud and highly maneuverable,” he says. “That’s what makes it fun and exciting to watch, especially at the relatively low altitudes required in the show.”

Hosting the Thunderbirds twice in as many air shows is an accomplishment, according to Pease. The squadron annually receives about 250 requests for demonstrations around the world but can only accept about a third of the invitations.

Lt. Col. Greg Moseley of Seguin, Texas, commands the squadron and pilots No. 1, meaning he leads each performance. His record is typical of the quality resume required to join the Thunderbirds.

Moseley joined the Air Force in 1998 after graduating from the Virginia Military Institute. He was a student at Command General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas and logged more than 2,800 hours in the F-15C and F-22 aircraft. He has more than 50 hours of combat pilot experience in the F-15C.

Wilson describes Thunderbirds pilots as the best of the best.

"It takes so much skill and practice for them to be able to do the maneuvers that they do and make it look so effortless from the ground," he says.

"My favorite part about their act is simply their formation flight. These pilots do such an excellent job of keeping in a tight formation through maneuvers that would probably make the rest of us pass out," Wilson adds.

This year's team also features pilots:

Maj. Joshua Boudreaux, No. 2, of Covington, La.;

Maj. Caroline Jensen, No. 3, of River Falls, Wis.

Maj. Curtis Dougherty, No. 4, of Downingtown, Pa.

Maj. Blaine Jones, No. 5, of Kingman, Kan.

Maj. Jason Curtis, No. 6, of Kalispell, Mont.

Maj. Tyler Ellison, No. 7, of Layton, Utah

Maj. Michael Fisher, No. 8, of Vancouver, Wash.

America has honored the precision jet team in a number of unique ways. In 1993, Mattel introduced Air Force Barbie and Ken, and the dolls wore Thunderbirds attire. Four years later, to commemorate the Air Force's 50th anniversary, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp with the Thunderbirds. And in 1998, a photo of the squadron graced boxes of Wheaties, the breakfast of champions.

Thunder in the Valley is dedicated to active duty military men and women and veterans. As in 2011, dozens of new armed forces recruits will also be sworn in during the air show.

Pease, as a veteran, says he is excited about every aspect of the event and performances, in particular the Thunderbirds.

"It gives me a thrill to see this precison flying and these military personnel."

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