Will the F-35 Be the Next Thunderbirds Jet?


TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Florida -- The F-16 Fighting Falcon has been the mainstay of the Air Force Thunderbirds for decades.

But those who have flown with the team, as well as members of the fighter jet community at large, wonder what the replacement aircraft will be.  

Could it be the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter? Or maybe something a little more bite-size, such as the T-50 trainer, should the Air Force actually decide to buy the aircraft?

Whatever the final choice, it's got to live up to the agility of the F-16 known as the Viper to the F-16 community.

"It's because it looks like a snake," one public affairs officer told Capt. Erik "Speedy" Gonsalves in a Tyndall conference room referencing viper. Military.com sat down to interview pilots here at the base and took a ride up in the F-16D two-seater with Gonsalves on April 21.

Gonsalves, new to the team with more than 500 hours of combat experience in the A-10 Thunderbolt, took this reporter for her first-ever flight in a fighter jet. The advance pilot has logged more than 1,600 flight hours during his Air Force career, which began in 2008 after graduating the Air Force Academy.

The demonstration squadron flew the T-38 Talon trainer during the 1970s oil crisis. And downsizing to a trainer -- such as Lockheed Martin's T-50, which has avionics based on the F-16 but is a more capable trainer -- could make sense logistically.

Audiences may still want bigger.  

"Certainly, the F-35 is a very agile airplane -- super capable," said Lt. Col. Jason Heard, commander and leading pilot of the air demonstration team. "Whenever they do make that decision, they may look at the F-35 as the logical next choice if we're going to continue that narrative of a combat aircraft."

"[But] a lot of its capabilities would not be visual in an air demonstration: its data links, its ability to network, understand and build a situational picture in a war environment," Heard said.

He said the decision is still a few years out, with various cost analyses needed.

Perhaps the Air Force would consider using an F-35 without all the bells and whistles, should Lockheed Martin Corp., its manufacturer, be open to making a less specialized version.

And it's not as if the team's pilots are training in the F-35 or any other kind of fighter at the moment, said Maj. Nick Krajicek, the slot pilot, flying the No. 4 jet.

"It's only speculation that it may be the F-35," he said, though "it is going to be the Air Force's biggest buy" of combat aircraft. "We need to outfit the combat warfighter with that airplane before the Thunderbirds think about changing to … that aircraft."

"Regardless of what aircraft the Air Force picks, I think about [it] for the aircrews, for the ground crews, for the maintenance, and for the overall show quality of what that's going to be and how that transitions," Krajicek said.

For now, "the maintainers you see here working the line right now do such an exceptional job … that we can fly these [F-16s] well into the future," he said.


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