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Orlando native, Thunderbirds leader ‘stuck with the goals.’ Now, he is coming home

Lt. Col. John Caldwell, commander of the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron "Thunderbirds," folds a flag after performing at the Naval Air Station Oceana Air Show on Sept. 22, 2019, in Virginia Beach, Va.

ANDREW D. SARVER/U.S. AIR FORCE

By MARCO SANTANA | Orlando Sentinel | Published: December 3, 2019

ORLANDO, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Air Force Lt. Col. John Caldwell’s ambition growing up in Central Florida certainly wasn’t surprising. He wanted to be a pilot.

His parents didn’t put too much stock in it. After all, doesn’t every kid want to be a pilot, firefighter or police officer?

But the University High School graduate has fulfilled that dream — and then some. He will return home as the lead pilot of the elite U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds at an air show next fall.

“I knew it was achievable if I just committed myself to working hard in school, following my passion for aviation and committing myself to the Air Force,” Caldwell, 41, said Monday in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel. “It was a priority, and I stuck with the goals.”

The Thunderbirds are the starring attraction for the first air show at Orlando Sanford International Airport in 26 years. The show will happen Halloween weekend next year, Oct. 31 and Nov. 1. So far, the show has sold about 1,250 tickets, organizers said.

When lead sponsor Lockheed Martin made the announcement that the Thunderbirds were coming, they did not realize the local connection, said Michael Rein, a company spokesman who has been leading the show’s organization.

“When we went into this, we were proud to have the Thunderbirds coming to the show,” he said at a defense conference in Orlando on Monday. “To find out he was an Orlando native, I don’t know what cliché to use, but it was an unbelievable coincidence.”

By the time the Sanford performance comes around, Caldwell will be doing his final couple of shows as a Thunderbird.

The Air Force limits members of the squadron to two-year stints with the group as a way to fend off fatigue and stress on the family.

But that likely won’t push him out of the spotlight, said his stepfather, Bill Oswald.

“I don’t think John is done doing cool stuff,” he said. “He’s terrific at what he does and he is a born leader.”

After one year at the University of Central Florida, Caldwell, whom family members call “Johnny Boy,” moved on to attend and graduate from the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Caldwell said the team’s performance is less risky than many other acrobatic events performed by other aerial groups.

But the 66-year-old squadron did suffer a tragedy in April 2018.

Maj. Stephen “Cajun” Del Bagno died when his F-16 Fighting Falcon crashed during a test flight, which temporarily grounded the team.

“At the end of the day, what we do is inherently safe,” Caldwell said. “We fly these maneuvers within exact parameters and precision and an incredible amount of discipline. If you don’t have these things, it can be a risky endeavor.”

But that risk is something Caldwell has gotten used to, he said.

“For us, being in the military, we have accepted the fact that we decided to operate in an area that might have a more elevated risk than normal civilian occupations,” he said.

He says being in the cockpit during a show brings a wave of emotions, from stress to relaxation and everything in between.

Caldwell, who has moved more than a dozen times since graduating from high school, expects the Sanford show to be a fun homecoming and reunion with friends.

“I always feel like this area is home to me in ways that no place can ever be home because I have had so many experiences,” said Caldwell, whose friends saw him lead the Thunderbirds in a show Nov. 1-2 at Punta Gorda. “When I come back, it’s like I have never been gone.”

©2019 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)
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