Thunderbirds

According to an email shotgunned across the Air Force’s fighter wings, the Air Force is having trouble getting enough pilots to apply to the Thunderbirds to field a team consistent with its exacting standards. It’s the latest manifestation of a dangerous and deepening pilot shortage in a service fatigued by decades of under-resourced warfighting.

Brig. Gen. Christopher Short’s message is featured below. I won’t conduct an exhaustive exposition of its contents because they speak pretty plainly for themselves. The main takeaway here is that a job traditionally viewed as a prestigious, fast-track ticket to O-6 isn’t all that attractive to the top pilots in today’s tired and overstretched Air Force.

It’s also interesting that even against the backdrop of a shallow Thunderbird recruiting pool for a second consecutive year, Short makes an explicit push for nominations that will foster visible diversity.

If there’s a concern about getting enough nominees with the experience and flying ability to build a successful team, as Short attests, the message should arguably have been a much more straightforward push for the best candidates, regardless of sex or skin color. Seems like Short’s message here is “send me more diverse candidates … and also they need to be superb pilots.” Shouldn’t the message read more like “send me your best pilots, and do your best to incorporate visible diversity” …? 

I’ll leave the rest for you to digest on your own. Comments welcome.

Subject: Thunderbird Applicants
Importance: High

Wing Commanders,

I am writing to request your assistance.  For some, you are familiar with the request, for others it may be the first time, so please bear with me.  I am asking for your help in finding the right pilots for next year’s Thunderbird team.  Maj Gen Silveria, USAFWC/CC will also write your NAF/CCs asking similar. 

The announcement is out and the suspense has passed for the applications for next year’s team, but we have only received 15 applications for the three demonstration pilot positions (#3,#6, and #8 narrator/advance pilot).   While we have several qualified candidates that many of you submitted, I am lacking the depth in talent we’ve seen in previous years and I am lacking in diversity of gender, ethnicity and MDS background. Currently 14 white males have applied and zero applicants from the F-15C or F-22.  I understand the Raptors are finally in the fight so many are taking their first chance at combat (ok couldn’t resist) and choosing not to apply.

If you handled this like I did as a FW/CC, I waited for interest and then flew with those who wanted to apply, and then wrote my letter of recommendation.  What I didn’t do was actively look through my wing for those pilots that might do a great job representing our AF and benefit from the experience, and then have the conversation about becoming a Thunderbird. With over 200 days a year of TDY and a focus on retaining, recruiting and representing our AF, this has to be a volunteer, but I have found, and learned from others, that the reluctant volunteer often makes the best Thunderbird officer. I’d offer that those chosen for the team, do very well in school and promotion competition–often they come in with the record that supports that–but we have taken very good care of those with excellent records.

As you look out at your wings, I’d also ask you to look at those pilots that may have the ability to reach our audiences that don’t necessarily look like each of you.  I have told the story in several audiences, including the ACC commander’s Conference, but it bears repeating: Two years ago, Thunderbird #3, Caroline “Blaze” Jensen had the longest lines post show for autographs. Additionally, I had several AF officers who wrote that their daughters, who had shown no interest in the AF, were now considering after seeing/talking to Blaze–one said she now wanted to be a Thunderbird.  Being a female pilot allowed her to make connections none of the other pilots were able to do. While she brought a different gender demographic–she was also a reservist–she earned her position on the team and like each of team members, did an amazing job representing our AF.  Currently our #8 is a reservist and he has done an outstanding job as well.

The stories go both ways.  The Thunderbird First Sergeant last year was an African American female and would often “stand the line” after shows and talk to airshow attendees.  One young African-American girl engaged the shirt and marveled at how she was a member of the team.  The shirt asked if she would like to fly airplanes one day, the young girl immediately responded, “I can’t do that, I’m black.”  This is 2016 America. The power of seeing someone that looks like you, doing something you want to grow up and do, cannot be overestimated.

Finally, I don’t expect a huge push of diverse applicants, primarily because our pool isn’t very diverse.  But I need talent on the team as well, and some of the 15 applicants just don’t have the depth of record of our typical competitive applicant.  I am hoping you have one or two you can engage and discuss the impact they could on our Air force by becoming a Thunderbird pilot.

The applicants will be selected on past performance, records, interviews and ability to become part of a team and humbly represent our AF–thus the pool of applicants ideally would represent our CAF.

In order to facilitate this last minute push, I will take a name and a letter of recommendation from the nominating WG/CC by next Wednesday.  I’ll need full packages by 26 Feb, but we control the process and am willing to work with you to get the packages submitted in order to find the right applicants for the team.

This is the second time I’ve had to get out for additional applicants.  Last year several of the last minute applicants became finalists, so I am hoping that with your help we can increase the size and depth of the pool. Additionally, this may be less a “you” issue and more of a “me” issue.  If you have insights on why we are not getting the number of traditional applicants, I’d love to hear.  The challenge cuts across many MDS on the team, so I think it is a reflection of a slightly tired force–but there may be other factors I’m missing.  I would really appreciate your help, and if you can send this to your TFI partners, I would appreciate it as well (Bluto and Roscoe, request your assist).  A similar email will go to those I know, but my contact list is not complete.

Appreciate your time and efforts supporting this mission,

Junior

Christopher M. Short
Brig Gen, USAF
Commander
57 WG, Nellis AFB

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