Minutes after eight F-16 fighter jets thundered across the Flathead Valley and landed at Glacier Park International Airport on the afternoon of Aug. 28, Maj. Jason Curtis climbed out of the cockpit with a smile from ear to ear. It was likely a similar expression to the one Curtis had when he first saw the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, better known as the Thunderbirds, as a 4-year-old kid in Kalispell.
“I’ve come full circle and it’s good to be home,” Curtis told a scrum of reporters on the tarmac.
Curtis, who was born and raised in the Flathead Valley, is one of the stars of the Thunderbirds, an elite team of pilots that tours the country for airshow demonstrations that feature acrobatic maneuvers in the sky. The team is in Kalispell this weekend for the Mountain Madness Airshow, which runs Saturday and Sunday and features a full lineup of airplanes and performers at Glacier Park International Airport.
Curtis said that first encounter with the Thunderbirds inspired him to go to the U.S. Air Force Academy after he graduated from Flathead High School in 1999. He graduated from the academy in 2004 and joined the U.S. Air Force soon after, eventually becoming a pilot and flight commander for the 308th Fighter Squadron at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. He has logged more than 1,750 flight hours as an Air Force pilot, including more than 280 hours in combat over Iraq and Libya.
Two years ago, he decided to try and join the Thunderbirds and emerged from the dozens of applicants to join the team in 2013. Unfortunately, his inaugural season was cut short when the government sequestration grounded the Thunderbirds and Navy’s Blue Angels. Late last year, the Department of Defense announced that both demonstration teams would return to the skies in 2014. Curtis said it was worth the wait.
“There was a silver lining,” Curtis said. “Because (of the sequestration) we got to see an outpouring of support for the program.”
Normally, Thunderbird pilots are on the team for two years, but because of the sequestration Curtis will be able to stay on for three years.
Curtis said the team constantly practices their performance that features 35 different maneuvers during the 45-minute program. They also must stay physically fit in order to withstand the speeds of the planes, which fly up to 1,500 miles per hour. While Curtis said most of the maneuvers would never be used in combat, the skills it takes to complete them are. A pilot must always be able to make split-second decisions.
Before his first performance, Curtis said a veteran pilot told him he would experience the same stress during a Thunderbirds performance as he did during combat. He soon found out that the pilot was right.
Curtis is especially excited to perform for his hometown.
“It’s good to be able to show them what I can do,” he said. “The show will be nothing less than perfect. It’s great to show people what the American military can do.”
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