Thunderbirds Swoop into Langley for AirPower

As Langley Air Force Base celebrates its 100th year, Air Force Capt. Nick Eberling can appreciate the early daredevils of the sky who formed the foundation of American air power.

After all, Eberling makes his living flying upside-down at treetop level just under the speed of sound with another aircraft about 3 feet away.

So yeah, he gets it.

Eberling and his fellow pilots with the Air Force Thunderbirds precision flying team roared into town Thursday in advance of AirPower Over Hampton Roads, the show that begins Friday at Langley and runs through the weekend.

Before landing their F-16 Fighting Falcons, the pilots performed a series of acrobatic moves to showcase their talents and to alert Hampton residents near the base that yes, the Thunderbirds had indeed arrived.

Eberling is the lead solo pilot and Thunderbird No. 5. As a nod to his role, the 5 on his aircraft is upside down. The concepts that Thunderbird pilots have honed to a fine edge -- flying in formation, for example -- were conceptualized and launched in the skies over Europe in World War I and refined by succeeding generations of pilots.

"Formation flying is something that goes back years," said Eberling, a native of Ashburn, Va.

The team's maneuvers are meant to entertain, but the moves are based in combat tactics. The team's F-16s could be returned to combat within 48 hours -- with some extra time built in for a new paint job.

Langley is home to the 27th and 94th fighter squadrons, units rooted in World War I. Pilots such as Eddie Rickenbacker of the 94th and Frank Luke of the 27th are among the founding fathers of American combat aviation. They had the hard job, said Maj. Nick Krajicek, who flies in the "slot" position for the team. By pushing the boundaries of technology years ago, his job is that much easier.

"We talk about forging air power and forging combat power," said Krajicek, a former Army helicopter pilot who later commissioned into the Air Force through officer training school. "I look at World War I pilots, World War II pilots, and all pilots really, as laying the groundwork for what we do now.

"Our aircraft is very technologically advanced, which those earlier pilots were not able to count on. It's a proud heritage, a proud lineage. I'm proud to be a part of that."

Formed in 1953 as the 3600th Air Demonstration Unit, Thunderbird pilots have flown a variety of aircraft through the years. Their current F-16s are considered a multi-role fighter jet. As the Thunderbirds landed, an aircraft parked nearby represented the Air Force of the future.

It is the F-35-A joint strike fighter.

The F-35 joint strike fighter will be on display and in the skies over Langley this weekend. Variants are being built for the Air Force, for Navy aircraft carriers and for Marines who need a vertical take-off and landing capability.

Maj. Will Andreotta flew the F-16 for about 10 years before taking on the F-35 a couple of years ago. He can't say enough good things about his newer ride.

"In terms of comparison -- the systems, the avionics, the sensors the F-35 has -- you can't compare it to any aircraft we have out in the inventory," he said. "It is kind of an apples and oranges kind of thing."

His flight helmet is a thing of beauty, and it probably should be. The F-35 pilot helmet goes for about $400,000. It streams real-time imagery from six infrared cameras mounted around the aircraft into the helmet. It allows the pilot to "look through" the plane. Projected on the helmet's visor are airspeed, heading, altitude, targeting information and warnings.

Andreotta has a technical term to describe it.

"It's awesome," he said.

The F-35 has been the subject of intense criticism for cost overruns and delays. Part of his job this weekend is to offer a new perspective for the tax-paying public.

The general public has "never met anyone who's worked on it, who's supported it, who's flown on it before," he said. "We're out there to tell the story of what we know are the truths about the F-35. Get it out to the general public and let them ask those questions. We want to be the ones to answer."

Show Full Article

Related Topics

Air Force Military Bases