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What goes on before the Thunderbirds are 'go'

The U.S. Air Force’s elite Air Demonstration Squadron, the Thunderbirds, showcase the best the force has to offer.  NBC News’ Gene Choo describes the rare chance to climb into the cockpit of an F-16D Fighting Falcon with a Thunderbird pilot and fly over Death Valley.
NBC News' Gene Choo and Maj. Tad "T.C." Clark, pilot of Thunderbird 8, prepare for take-off at Nellis AFB in Las Vegas.
NBC News' Gene Choo and Maj. Tad "T.C." Clark, pilot of Thunderbird 8, prepare for take-off at Nellis AFB in Las Vegas.U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds
/ Source: NBC News

NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. —   The United States Air Force’s elite Air Demonstration Squadron, the Thunderbirds, is comprised of 134 hand-picked airmen — truly “the best of the best.”

Since the unit’s inception in 1953, their mission has been to showcase the capabilities of the 500,000-plus personnel of the active-duty Air Force, Air National Guard and Reserve. More than 315 million people in all 50 states and 60 foreign countries have seen the Thunderbirds’ nearly 4,000 official aerial demonstrations. 

NBC News’ Gene Choo describes the experience of climbing into the cockpit of an F-16D Fighting Falcon with Thunderbird pilot Major Tad ‘T.C.’ Clark and flying over Death Valley, Calif.  

Located about eight miles northeast of Las Vegas sits more than 14,000 acres where some of the best fighter pilots in the world hone their skills — Nellis Air Force Base. This arid airbase is home to the United States Air Force Warfare Center where advanced fighter jet combat techniques are taught and developed. Fittingly, Nellis is also the headquarters of the Air Force’s fabled Thunderbird demonstration squadron. 

As we walked across the base, four sleek gray objects streaked across the cobalt blue sky. A flight of F-15 Eagle fighter jets was making their final approach to land, the roar of their powerful engines breaking the afternoon calm. “That’s the sound of freedom,” said Lt. Col. Kevin Robbins, the commander and leader of the Thunderbirds as he looked up at the banking jets. “I never get tired of hearing that sound.”

Robbins, 40, flies Thunderbird 1 — the lead F-16 in the eight-jet demonstration team. To the men and women of the unit the decorated pilot with nearly 20 years in the Air Force is known simply as “The Boss.” Emblazoned on the left sleeve of his flight suit is a Fighter Weapons School patch — the Air Force’s version of “Top Gun.”

Planes on tour
From mid-March through mid-November each year, the Thunderbirds perform throughout the United States and abroad. During the 200 days, they present precision aerial demonstrations in one of America’s front-line multi-role fighter aircraft, the F-16 Fighting Falcon. The squadron’s mission is to demonstrate the public the high degree of professionalism, teamwork and competence possessed by the Air Force. 

“It’s not just about the men and women in the jets — it’s about a huge team that makes this happen and that is very representative of what we do in the Air Force,” Robbins said.

After pulling on a one-piece olive green flight suit and black aircrew boots, it was time to get ready for my flight. 

“You are gonna have a blast,” said Maj. Dan Mirski, the Thunderbirds' flight surgeon. Mirski, a trauma doctor, looks after the health of the entire squadron. After listening to my heart and lungs with a stethoscope and giving me a clean bill of health, he gave me a briefing as to what I would be feeling while flying at over 600 miles an hour.

“First of all, when you are performing high speed turns and maneuvers, you will feel the onset of Gs,” Mirski explained. A “G” is the force of gravity exerted on the body. When we are standing on earth, we are subjected to one G. However, the Gs can fluctuate quickly and significantly while flying in a jet fighter. 

“You will feel anywhere between three to nine Gs," continued Mirski, "and what this means is that you will be feeling anywhere between three to nine times the force of gravity at various times during your flight.

“So at nine Gs, if you weigh 170 pounds, you will end up weighing over 1,500 pounds. You will feel this huge weight pressing down on your body and down on your seat. It will feel like a huge bear hug and it will be hard to breathe.”

In order to prevent or minimize blacking out under such stress, Mirski taught me the “G Strain.”

“Take a nice deep breath in and holding that breath, I want you to flex your leg and torso muscles,” said Mirski. “The blood in your body will start to pool down to your legs so you really need to flex those muscles. That, in addition to your G-suit, will prevent blood from leaving your head and torso.”

The Fighting Falcon
My pilot on the demonstration flight was Maj. Tad “T.C.” Clark, 34. As the group’s advance pilot and show narrator, he is also responsible for flying VIPs (and media types such as me) on orientation flights in the F-16. A graduate of the Air Force Academy, he has over 1,000 flight hours in the F-16.

“It is, in my opinion, the finest fighter out there," said Clark of the F-16. "It can do everything from drop bombs on ground targets to engage air-to-air targets.”  

The Fighting Falcon, nicknamed the “Viper” by its pilots, is arguably one of the most successful fighter aircraft of all time. During the 1991 Gulf War, it flew more sorties than any other allied aircraft, in part because it has the ability to fly day or night, in virtually any weather conditions and carrying a myriad of weapons payloads. And not only does it can it top Mach 2 — 1,500 mph — but it also has the distinction of being one of the few combat aircraft that can withstand 9 Gs. 

Clark explained that we would be flying up to Death Valley and over Mount Whitney. “It’s gonna take about 10-15 minutes to get out to our airspace cruising at about 400 miles per hour,” said Clark. “Once we’re in our airspace, which will be roughly 100 square miles, I’m going to dip the nose down and we’ll start accelerating and go right into our maneuvers,” adding that the fancy flying we’d be doing is all rooted in actual air combat maneuvers used by the Air Force.

As we stepped out to Thunderbird 8, we are met by crew chief Tech. Sgt. Dan Greaves, the man responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of Thunderbird 8. “This is my jet,” said Greaves proudly as he patted the F-16’s fuselage. “The pilot just borrows it from me time to time.”

Buzzing around Thunderbird 8 were a number of maintenance personnel constantly polishing, adjusting and tweaking its gleaming surfaces. They looked like a NASCAR pit crew. “These jets couldn’t fly without us,” said Staff Sgt. David Batterson, the crew chief for Thunderbird 3. “I hope the public realizes that when they see us at the air shows.”

After Greaves helped me put on my G-suit and flight harness, I climbed the metal ladder up into the back seat of Thunderbird 8. Before Greaves helped me strap into the seat, he handed me two airsickness bags. “Just in case,” he smiled. 

As Clark climbed into the cockpit and strapped in he said, “Sit back and get ready for the ride of your life!”  

And that's what it was.

Click on the video link above to watch Thunderbird 8’s flight.