Flying with the Thunderbirds

To all those who have ever wondered…. what is it like waking up in the morning, knowing you are going to fly with the Thunderbirds?


Perhaps as some sort of twisted joke, the Thunderbirds flight surgeon told me that I needed to get a good night’s sleep before my flight….. Let me put this into perspective… Sleeping the night before flying is like a kid trying to sleep the night before a Christmas where Santa brings him an F-16. Not Happening.

Nonetheless, after whatever sleep I could muster, I got in the car and headed to Luke Air Force Base. As the passengers in my car will attest, I listened to heavy metal for the entire drive, as it was the only thing that calmed me down. Upon walking into the briefing room I was immediately informed that the flight had been bumped up and that I needed to brief with my pilot right away. We would step to the jet in 30 minutes. Sitting there listening to Thunderbird 7 talk about everything from how I would need to sit if we had eject, to how I could stay conscious through 9 G’s was completely surreal. Before I knew it he said, “that’s it, let’s head to the jet.”

USAF Thunderbirds

A quick mental image to tell you how crazy this moment was….

I remember very vividly walking down the flight line and there sat all the Thunderbird jets (the absolute pinnacle of the F16 fighter jet), lined up perfectly in a row. The last jet in the row had the cockpit canopy open, and no sooner than I could take in this sight, one of the flight engineers kindly said to me, “sir, your jet is ready.” Please forgive my swearing, but the moment you are informed that your F16 is ready is UN-FUCKING-BELIEVABLE!!!

With the Thunderbird crews standing around the jet, I walked up, put on my G-suit and went to climb up the ladder, only to realize that not only was this my seat for the next hour, but the plane also wore my name on the side. There is no way that I deserved any of this, and I can’t begin to tell you how humbling it was.

Bb in Jet 2

Larry Reid / USAF Thunderbirds

Sitting in the jet, G-suit, oxygen mask and seat belts hooked in, the nerves disappear. At that moment the world fades away, nothing goes through my mind. All this time thinking of what it would be like gives way to reality. The moment to wonder if I would stay conscious or get sick was gone. As the jet engine fires up, I know that I am along for the craziest ride of my life…. time to sit back and enjoy the ride… and take a selfie.

After a short taxi we sat at the end of a long runway on an airfield that we had all to ourselves. The pilot asks if I am ready. I could barely get the word “yes” out before the engine starts to run up, almost as if the rocket we are strapped to has just woken up and is angry. He releases the brake and we are starting to move… quickly. Not long after that, he ignites the afterburner and I find that this thing goes even faster. With the wheels up we stay barely off the the ground blazing like hell down a runway as he is calling out speeds to me…. 100 miles per hour, 200, 300 miles and hour, 400, 500 MILES AND HOUR! and then he says the most insane words that I can remember…. HERE. COME. THE. G’s.

No sooner than I could start my breathing he pulls the jet in a straight vertical climb and we scream away from the Earth. Where I could once see my friends and family cheering on the side of the runway, only a moment later we are punching through the clouds as the world curves. I am speechless, as any words that I could write down would never do the view justice. In short, it epitomizes every essence of the word “beautiful” in its most primitive form. As the pilot pulls jet from vertical to inverted I could breath, but was breatheless.

Leveled out, we head north to a range where the pilot can show me “what the jet could do” as if the takeoff wasn’t life changing enough… At this point I just kicked back and tried to fit my smile behind the mask. With no effort whatsoever, the jet tears through the sound barrier. I am sitting in peaceful bliss as the world breaks behind us in a 1000 mile per hour combustion that is heard for miles around. If I had a pen and paper, I could sit there and check off the bucket list items as we did them.

A couple maneuvers down and the pilot asks for a status update. At this point I am just laughing hysterically and every question of, “would you like to try?” is immediately answered with”YES.” Then comes the question that I had been dreading the most, “would you like to see if you can make it to 9 G’s?” Part of me wanted to say, “you know, the 8.5 we pulled on takeoff were good for me,” however, reluctantly I answered, “HELLLL YEAH!”

Now let me try my best to explain what 9 G’s feels like… Firstly, in no way is it comfortable, not even close. I began to feel my face melting away as the skin in my cheeks pulled down to my mouth. The color from my vision was the next thing to fade away, first the reds, then the greens. Squeezing like hell, I did everything I could to get air into my lungs as the G-suit wrenched it out. With all the color of a 1950’s television set, the next thing I noticed was that waves were starting to develop in my vision and a vignette appeared. All the while I am listening to the pilot’s breathing and trying my hardest to match it. At any point I could relax and immediately be unconscious, only to wake up and wonder where I am, but I had trained too hard to let this happen. Then, just as G’s set had set in, they  began to leave and normalcy appeared. However, if I were to relax at that point, the blood would leave my brain too fast and knock me out as well, so I continually squeeze as the G’s lift and my body slowly returns to what sanity it had left.

With the chaos that maneuvers gave, a balance came as we traded G’s  for the world’s craziest site seeing tour. Dropping down to the lowest altitude we were allowed, we decided it would be fun to give someone else a story that no one would believe. We found the highway that runs between Phoenix and Las Vegas and flew along it at a significant speed with the smoke on, topping it off with crossing a bridge low, for all the traffic to see and for none of their friends to believe.

From there we had reached bingo fuel (the max limit that can be used before returning to base). I took a couple minutes to take some pictures with my iPhone and send my wife a text as we flew home. While the engaging portion of the flight may have only lasted an hour, it was already starting to hit me with what I had just experienced. I thought about the kids like myself that looked up every time a jet flew by and the cadets at the  academy striving to be the next Thunderbirds. However, more than anything, I thought about the honor that had bestowed me to be sitting in the seat of a Thunderbird jet.

Bb in Jet 1

Larry Reid / USAF Thunderbirds

Upon arrival, I watched as my friends and family came out to the jetway along side the many Thunderbird crew members. It was like a homecoming party for someone that had been gone for years, all excited for someone who had just sat in a seat and enjoyed the ride of a lifetime. It was the kind of celebration that the men and women that serve our nation deserve every time they come home, not me. I am thoroughly grateful for this experience and will always be in debt to the Thunderbirds for this. Every person, friend, family and crew member felt welcome and important and I can’t thank the entire squad enough.

In the coming weeks, we will be releasing another video of the photoshoot I did of the pilots and all the training that went into the flight. In the meantime, I encourage you all to head over to the Thunderbirds website and check out their schedule. Who knows, they might be in a town near you soon. I guarantee you, just watching the show will be one of the most incredible experiences you can have.

To the Thunderbirds, my crew and everyone that made this happen… Thank You.

    126 Responses to “Flying with the Thunderbirds”

  1. April 29, 2014 | Reply
    Mark says:

    Fantastic! Thanks for writing this. I’m living vicariously through your experience! Beautiful pic of the plane, too…

  2. Awesome Blair!

  3. Fabulous writing and photos! The experience didn’t look so intense in the video, but your accompanying blog post had me at the edge of my seat! Thanks so much for sharing. Would love to have this opportunity myself some day.

  4. Hello Blair!
    Been there, I feel you. It was 14 years ago but I remember it like yesterday. I flew in an F16D and went from 1.5G to 9G in half an hour! I was not the same person when we landed. I was working full-time for an automotive magazine back then, and I was starting to feel tired and fed up. I was staying on the job only for fear of missing out on new and exciting things. After the F16, my choices in life suddenly became much clearer: I had experienced the ultimate, no longer did I need to drive fast cars and chase after earthly thrills. In two months, I resigned, and looking back I am glad to say that I did the right thing for my career and my life.
    People often ask me how does 9Gs feel like, and I reply “people tried to describe this to me before my flight and they were unsuccessful, so I really cannot do any better”. People can only imagine what 2Gs feel like, because this is close enough to things that they have experienced in the past. The first time that you go above 3Gs, you enter uncharted territory. It is not like anything that you have ever felt on can relate to. Your immediate thought is that people should be dead above 4Gs, this cannot be happening, but on the other hand, you already know that this is not the case because pilots do it all the time.
    Pilots take years of flight training before experiencing 9Gs, but for us visitors it is a mind changing experience because it happens so fast. First, we flew around pulling 2-3Gs which was exhilarating, and after 20 minutes we had only gone up to 5Gs. At bingo time we only had 6Gs on the clock, and I then started to really wonder what lies ahead. I had stated that no matter what, I want to experience the limit of this, so I wasn’t backing out. I took the controls but only managed to pull 6.7Gs by myself, after which I had already greyed out and had to ease back to regain my eyesight. Of the 9Gs, I remember the quickness of the vision deterioration: no color, black edges like a vignette, then dark tunnel, then darkness. I didn’t pass out, but I think I was maybe 1-2 seconds away. I also remember the unbelievable weight of the helmet-how do they turn their head while pulling Gs, I really don’t know.
    We didn’t have proper digital cameras back then, so I shot everything on Fuji Velvia 50, with an Olympus mju-1 (I think it was called a Stylus in the US), and I also had an Olympus XA loaded with print film as backup.
    Really a life changing experience for me. Words cannot explain this, I know.
    (by the way: I found it funny that when you break the sound barrier in real life, it is no big deal at all-nothing happens, it is only a small digit on the HUD!)

    see also:

    Thank you for bringing back very fond memories, I am constantly smiling for half an hour now and my wife eyes me suspiciously

    All the best

    P.S. did you get the Certificate? Not many people have one of those:

  5. April 29, 2014 | Reply
    paul w says:

    Nice ride and writing, keep it up!

  6. April 29, 2014 | Reply
    Rob says:

    Awesome video! That was absolutely insane! What an amazing experience. I have been dreaming of doing something like this since I was a kid. How did you get the chance to do this?

  7. The F-16 has been one of the most sexy looking planes ever created. I liked it so much, I built a 1/2 scale as an artcar(plane) for Burning Man. The latest photos do not show its current state. There’s more metal on it now.

    Your flight, I imagine must have been beyond words…even though you were able to find some (much better than I could ever do)!!!!


    • I’ll be honest man, I had to sit back for a while (weeks) before I could even start writing about it. Even now, I still don’t think I have really processed it all. It was truly an honor.

  8. April 29, 2014 | Reply
    Chillgo says:

    Pumped you got to experience that!

  9. April 29, 2014 | Reply
    Barry says:

    Super awesome!

    I am curious what kind of training you did…I am sure 95% of population will simply pass out…

    • Training was rough to say the least. I was a lot of cardio and lower body, however some exercises were combined with the breathing that one does for heavy G’s. Squeeze your feet, then calves, then quads then butt extremely hard and then lock off your breathing while tightening the rest. You will get the biggest blood rush to your head and it is NOT comfortable. Then combine it with a workout and you see why it can be rough for weeks on end :-)

  10. Amazing experience and my inner child wants to tackle yours for living the dream. Kidding, thanks for the sharing and I’m off to check out the Thunderbirds site.

  11. April 30, 2014 | Reply
    Victor says:

    How did you managed to do this?? This is awesome! Can anyone book this?

    • May 11, 2014 | Reply
      Lonny Wilcox says:

      Nope, not with the Thunderbirds. There are some ways to fly in other high performance jet aircraft if you have the $ to do so. But with the Thunderbirds you have to earn it and then get seriously lucky. And even then you won’t ever feel like you really deserved it. There were hundreds and maybe thousands who were nominated to take the flight I took, and then there are many more who are no longer around to even be in the running. The only way I can justify my flight is that I took it for those who couldn’t.

  12. April 30, 2014 | Reply
    Brian says:

    And to think that some of our military take these machines into life and death situations! I bet it was hard enough being calm on a joy-ride, to think about going into battle in that.

  13. April 30, 2014 | Reply
    nserve98 says:

    Wow, Wht a thrill man, seriously!

  14. April 30, 2014 | Reply
    Phil Mudge says:

    Vietnam USAF VETERAN Four years we give to service of our great country.The reason for my comment is I have watched all these years of people ,the popular people,like singers,actors news people and just about anyone who knows somebody getting a ride in F 16 .i was a crew chief on eb66 ECM aircraft.non flying crew chief(no room except 3crew members). And flying in a USAF THUNDER BIRDS no less.Kind of not all goes to who you people really have not much idea how the aircraft works !!!!!!!

    • April 30, 2014 | Reply
      Anonymous says:

      I hear you. I would love to do this, too. I’m a retired Army helicopter pilot. I’d like to fly in a fighter jet, any one will do, and land on a carrier. Not me as the pilot, of course, but ride along. Yes, you would think that service members would be accorded such a privilege, especially those like you who worked on the planes!

    • Hi Phil – former F15 crew chief then photojournalist (all for the AF). The Air Force does a better job now about getting people rides, especially since recruiting and the Thunderbirds are back. What better way to get the word out about the awesome things the Air Force is doing, than to send up someone who can get the information out there. It’s more than just a buddy-buddy system in getting these rides. There’s planning and rationale for it all.

      I got my ride in an F-15 over Okinawa. Let me tell you, 9.2 G’s in a dog-fight over the Pacific Ocean (when you don’t know which way is up), hurt like hell. :)

  15. I hope the experience was amazing and i hope to see those self”e shots of what you took in the Cockpit :).

    Best Regards
    Kieran Fair
    UK Air Show Photography – Public Relations Manager.

  16. Awesome video!

  17. May 2, 2014 | Reply
    Jenny says:

    Wow amazing, excellently filmed loved the dramatic music what is the name of the music track and by whom?
    it is so neat and blends well and captures the emotion.

    You are so lucky fab bucket list to tick of!!

  18. May 2, 2014 | Reply
    Veronica says:

    Amazing, beautiful, funny, and looks scary as s***. Awesome.

  19. May 2, 2014 | Reply
    Joshua Penrod says:

    This is awesom! That’s my brother-in-law flying, who you can hear on the radio. I’m proud of him as well as jealous that he gets to go to work and play all day in a freking jet!

  20. I spent 10 ys as an AET in the navy in the late 50s early 60s and flew many time in AD6 intruders and F4 phantoms so i do know a little of the Gforce but never thayt high..The video was excellent but the editor should have had sense enough to tone down the music.I couldnt make out but a very few words you spoke and im not deaf.I dont know why all these guys have to overpower the video with what ever noise they call that.

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  22. May 3, 2014 | Reply
    Rick says:

    Great video! I watched it five times and wished it were longer.

    Was that you laughing about halfway through? The laugh was perfect.

    And the music was awesome. Made the ride that much better.

    Name of music piece please?

    I wrote on the Telegraph webpage “USAF Closer to God”

    I love my country and I love it even more after seeing this video.

  23. May 3, 2014 | Reply
    Helly (the netherlands) says:

    Wow lucky you, Awesome!

  24. May 3, 2014 | Reply
    Bernard says:

    Really amazing. Very nice video.
    Perfect music association, in one word : fantastic !
    Flying with this type of jet must be à unique experience.
    In Belgium, for sure, this is impossible, even of we have the same jets.
    Looking forward your next video.
    Greetings from Belgium :-)

  25. May 3, 2014 | Reply
    Jacobus says:

    Man, what a ride! Loved your story about it! And I wished I had your seat, even if it was only for 30 seconds!

  26. May 4, 2014 | Reply
    Gerard says:


  27. May 7, 2014 | Reply
    Mpho says:

    Great man, the ride seem awesome. I watched the video a couple of times. Impressively captured in your article. I am thoroughly envious.

  28. May 7, 2014 | Reply
    Marco says:

    Great video! The plane portrait is fantastic, love the mood.

  29. May 8, 2014 | Reply
    Rob says:

    Nicely done. You didn’t spew and that is a challenge if you have never been inverted or pulled Gs.

  30. May 8, 2014 | Reply
    Hyder says:

    Breathtaking video! Great job.
    I’ve made each and everyone of my family and friends watch this!

  31. May 10, 2014 | Reply
    John says:

    Thank You for sharing. I have watched this video probably 30 times by now and I am hardly finished.

  32. May 11, 2014 | Reply
    Lonny Wilcox says:

    Blair it has been 5 years for me and I still haven’t processed it all. I got to fly as part of the Thunderbird’s “Everyday Action Hero” program in 2009 in Peoria, IL. It is something you cannot forget.

    2 days after my flight, I saw my pilot again and he said “If you can walk, I didn’t do a very good job.” I could walk but just barely and with considerable pain. When my flight ended and I was asked “What was it like” my first thought was “Like an hour long car wreck, but fun.” The morning after it was all I could do to get out of bed, I am a firefighter, I do some pretty vigorous exercise and even more vigorous work and it left me a puddle of jello.

    People have heard this and thought I didn’t enjoy it and that is the absolute farthest from the truth possible. It was a blast. As soon as we hit the ground I was ready to do it again.

    Pulling 9.2g’s is not possible to describe so someone knows what it was like. When I try people look at me and have this look on their face that tells me they just don’t understand or they don’t believe. But I know what you mean and it is all you said and more.

    Negative g is even harder to explain. Most people’s experience with less than 1 g happens in a car that goes over a hill. For the briefest of a fraction of a second you experience less than 1g. It never goes below zero on the road really. Even a roller coaster is a second or 2 of almost 0g. Being in a -g dive for any length of time is rough and there is no relief from passing out, you just have to swallow hard and hope.

    It has changed my outlook on life for certain. What do you do to follow up something like that? It won’t ever be topped, EVER.

  33. Une tres bonne lecture, je vous en remercie !!!

  34. I was recommended this blog by my cousin. I’m not sure whether this post is written by him as nobody
    else know such detailed about my difficulty.

    You are incredible! Thanks!

  35. Great stuff Blair, Aim High Air Force!

  36. September 5, 2014 | Reply
    Chrisdot says:

    How did you manage to arrange a ride on such a great machine? I would love to do the same.

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