WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE — Maj. Curtis Dougherty, of Downington, Pa., a slot pilot with the USAF Air Demonstration Squadron, the Thunderbirds, never thought he would fly one day with this prestigious and elite group of Air Force officers.
“I went to the United States Air Force Academy with the desire to serve, to learn, garner a good four-year education and then ultimately become an Air Force officer,” he said. “But, my thought was to enter the work force.”
When he arrived at the Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., in 1998, he was “bitten by the flying bug” and thought he’d love to be on the Thunderbird team, but he also knew there would be many “hurdles” to reach that goal.
“So, I kind of focused on hurdle one, which was doing well enough at the academy to get a pilot training slot and then well enough there to get a fighter (training slot),” he added.
Dougherty eventually joined the Thunderbirds team in 2012.
“Two and half years ago it reached a point where I was in a position in my career where I had the experience required,” he said. “The jobs that I was doing for the service allowed me to to step aside from flying Strike Eagles and combat to be part of this team. The stars sort of aligned and the team was kind enough to take me on.”
He said the selection process begins a year in advance “before you ever show up at the squadron and put the patch on your chest for this uniform.”
He learned how to fly the F-16 Fighting Falcon in the middle of 2012.
“At the end of the year we spent our winter training new pilots,” he said. “At the end of 2012 is learning how to fly this position.
“The slot pilot, is the pilot in the back of the diamond formation,” he said. “We fly six airplanes in the demonstration; four of them comprise the diamond; two and three are the wing men and No. 1 is out front and No. 4 is in the back.”
Dougherty added that the “goal” is to make the diamond shape a precise “geometric shape.”
“That would be my primary purpose,” he noted. “… The intent of the diamond specifically is to demonstrate the precision of airmen around the globe in any number of different jobs, but, we just do it by way of flying airplanes. We try and be in a nice, tight formation position throughout the entire show.”
Dougherty said learning precision in the team is an ongoing process.
“I learn something new just about every day,” he added. “The team does a very good job. It’s a busy and focused training season that goes from November until March. We will fly twice a day to learn the positions that we fly. Everyone that joins the team has a minimum of 750 hours of flying either fast trainer jets or fighter aircraft … we build on the backbone that is the pattern that you have learned in your time flying in their combat air forces.”
For those who have never flown in an F-16, Dougherty tried to explain the experience.
“It’s difficult to quantify,” he said. “I would try to take your three favorite rides at an amusement park. Something like a roller coaster, the gravatron, and maybe the race cars they have there. You sort of put that all together and you get flying in the back of the F-16.
“Most people think about the G’s and G-forces, which are a major factor of flying those airplanes, but it’s far more turbulent and bouncy than you think it might be from looking at it on the ground,” he added. “You certainly feel a lot of movement; it’s four airplanes moving in amongst each other. It’s difficult to describe, but it’s sort of like driving your car around a race track, but you have a third dimension there.”
During his training, Dougherty said he eventually became more acclimatized to the G-Forces while flying.
“The human body adapts extremely well,” he noted. “It’s a foreign concept to your inner ear to move in that manner. In flight there are things happening that are very abnormal to the human body and it’s your inner ear and your brain trying to resolve all those movements with what’s happening to the world around it. Within three to five flights, I would say that 90 to 95 percent of pilots get over any sort of queasiness or air sickness issues that they have. For me it was the third or fourth flight I stopped feeling ill.”
He loves working with the Thunderbirds team that is comprised of approximately 120 to 130 people.
“It’s awesome,” Dougherty said. “I will leave this experience having really enjoyed the flying, being a part of the air show community, but the No. 1 take away, the most rewarding part of this job has been working with 130 people. I have never worked with a group that smiles more, enjoys what they do (and) takes to heart the responsibility of representing airmen everywhere. It puts a smile on my face every time I walk through the door.”
This year the Thunderbirds are scheduled to be at 35 different locations and perform a total of 65 to 70 air shows.
“The schedule is built based on a number of mission planning factors,” he said. “But, the goal is to get out and see as many different people and communities (as possible) …. The idea is to kind of reconnect the Air Force to the American people, show them what we are doing, what we are capable of and how important, not just this mission, but all Air Force missions are to us.”
Dougherty said the team was “excited” to be at WAFB for Wings Over Whiteman this weekend.
“It’s a cool way to reconnect with airmen that are out there during the mission and hopefully inspire them,” he said. “Or at least show them what other airmen in the Air Force are doing. It’s a cool way to see the local communities around the Air Force.”
“It is a fantastic organization,” Thunderbirds Public Affairs Officer Capt. Sara Harper said. “What this team stands for is recruit, retain and represent the mission of the Thunderbirds. We travel over 270 days a year going to different show sites.”
Staff Sgt. Alexandra Longfellow with WAFB 509th Bomb Wing Public Affairs Office said the base is expecting approximately 35,000 to 50,000 people each day for the event.
The 2015 Wings Over Whiteman Air Show will open at 9 a.m. both Saturday and Sunday. There will be both aerial acts by the USAF Thunderbirds and the US Army Golden Knights, plus displays and vendor booths. Admission is free.