NARRATIVE & IMAGES BY KEDAR KARMARKAR
LEST WE FORGET!!
War brings out all sorts of emotions in humanity. Sorrow, momentary joy, death and life. There is a saying “Only the dead have seen the end of war”. Two world wars have taken place in the history of humanity, and they have been followed by a lot of wars and low intensity conflicts that continue to take place every hour somewhere on the surface of this planet. Many people have sacrificed a lot in these wars – but it is very, very different for those who are at the forefront of fighting in one. It is not just the one fighting but even their families who must sacrifice a lot more compared to the others – sometimes it is the ultimate sacrifice. It thus becomes very important that we do not forget the sacrifices of these men and women who have gone to war and seen it first-hand. For that very reason, the Air Force Heritage Flight Foundation was born on December 6, 2010 – to honor the heroes. Flight formations feature modern frontline fighter and attack aircraft flying along side WW-II, Korea, and Vietnam-era warbirds. These formations are flown at air shows and serve as a living memorial to the men and women who have served or are serving, in the US Air Force.
The current frontline fighter and attack aircraft are drawn from the single-ship demo teams that are active with the US Air Force. They comprise of the –
General Dynamics F-16 Viper demo team based at Shaw AFB, South Carolina
Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II demo team based at Davis-Monthan AFB in Arizona
Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor demo team based at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, in Virginia
Lockheed Martin F-35 demo team based at Hill AFB, Utah.
The warbird fighters are flown by volunteers who are civilian or ex-military pilots and are drawn from either private owners or museums. They include types like the P-51D Mustang, P-38 Lightning, A-1 Skyraider, P-47 Thunderbolt, P-40 Warhawk and F-86 Sabre.
New this year joining this unique club are two privately-owned Northrop F-5E Tiger II jet fighters. The F-5E Tiger II was an updated version of Northrops F-5A/B Freedom Fighter which was developed as a private ventrure alongside its successful T-38 Talon jet trainer. Because it closely resembled the size and flight characteristics of a MiG-21 that was flown by America’s adversaries, it was selected to simulate the MiG-21 and other Russian built fighters to train American pilots for aerial combat by flying them in the Aggressor squadrons. The Aggressor squadrons to this date expose American and allied partner nation’s fighter pilots to peer adversary tactics and also wear paint schemes as worn by the near-peer adversary’s air forces. One of the F-5s that joined the Heritage program this year wears a blue aerial camouflage scheme of the Wing Commander for the 57th Fighter Weapons Wing.
Before the individuals can fly at air shows, they need to be qualified and approved by the US Air Force and hence there is a training course that is conducted every year. The course provides the airspace and logistics to practice formation flights and manouveres by the pilots that would be flown at air shows throughout the US during the year. It brings together the crews and gives them a chance to know each other and work together to make the program successful.
There is a small team of pilots who are certified to fly with the single-ship demo aircraft. Greg Anders who hails from Washington state is the Senior Vice President and Executive Director of the Heritage Flight Museum. He is a Lieutenant Colonel (Retd) having served 23 years in the US Air Force and flew A-10 Thunderbolt II, more commonly known as the Warthog, during his time in the Air Force. He flies the North American P-51D Mustang.
Jim Beasley Jr. is a founding member of the AFHF (Air Force Heritage Flight) program and has flown many Heritage Flights at many air shows in North America. He also flies a P-51D Mustang named “Bald Eagle”. Flying warbirds for over 20 years, he has accumulated thousands of hours in warbirds such as the Supermarine Spitfire, Vought F4U Corsair, Grumman F8F Bearcat and the P-51 Mustang.
Dan Friedkin is founder and chairman of the AFHF Foundation. He has also flown in many air shows and serves as the aerial coordinator for the AFHF training course. Incidentally he has been qualified this year to fly the F-5 Tiger. He also flies warbirds like the North American T-6 Texan, P-51 Mustang, North American F-86 Sabre, Grumman F6F Hellcat, Grumman F8F Bearcat, Vought F4U Corsair, Hawker Hurricane and various models of Supermarine Spitfire.
Charles ‘Tuna’ Hainline is a Lieutenant Colonel (Retd) from the US Air Force and has flown many different types of aircraft including the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk, legacy McD Hornets when he did an exchange tour with the US Navy, and McDonnell Douglas F-4F/QF-4 Phantoms. He has also qualified to fly many warbirds that include the B-17 Flying Fortress, F4U Corsair, Douglas A-1 Skyraider and P-51 Mustang among others.
Steve Hinton is from Chino, California and is perhaps more famous for his world speed record for piston-powered aircraft over 3 kilometers at 531 miles per hour (approx 854 kmph). He is a qualified pilot on many warbirds such as P-51 Mustang, Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, Messerschmitt Bf109, Yakovlev Yak-3/9/11 and Spitfires to name a few.
Stuart Milson serves as the Chief Pilot of the Cavanaugh Museum, in Addison, Texas. He also flies in the US Navy Legacy Tailhook Flight program since 2007. He has flown various aircraft such as the Douglas DC-3, McDonnell Douglas MD-11, North American B-25, Boeing B-17, TBM Avenger, and Hawker Sea Fury.
Tommy Williams flew McDonnell Douglas F-15C Eagle, F-5E Tiger, F-4E Phantom and F-16 Viper during his time in the US Air Force accumulating 3,800 hours of flight time. He joined the Air Force Reserves after active duty and recently retired as a Major General serving in support of the USAF Director of Operations in the Pentagon.
Bruce “Doc” Winters is from San Antonio, Texas. He joined the US Navy and flew F/A-18 Hornets and accumulated over 1,300 hours of flight time and saw action in Operation Southern Watch. He also served as an exchange Instructor Pilot with the US Marine Corps at MCAS El Toro and MCAS Miramar. He owns the P-51 Mustang named “Happy Jack’s Go Buggy” and has acquired 4,000 hours in it. He received a degree in Ophthalmology and hence the nickname “Doc”.
Pixelsnipers got an opportunity this year to speak to some of the members of the demo teams and get an insight into their motivations to join the demo team and the US Air Force.
We spoke with SSgt. Thomas Bristol, and SrA. Easley who are the Dedicated Crew Chief (DCC) and Assistant Dedicated Crew Chief (ADCC) respectively on the Lockheed Martin F-35A Demonstration team. On the motivation to join the Demo team, SSgt. Bristol said “Growing up I went to a lot of air shows, and there was one at my local airport as well. I saw the US Air Force Thunderbirds there. I was not sure what I want to be but then joined the Air Force. And then being stationed at Hill AFB, I saw the F-35 demo team and I thought it would be a great experience to join the team. I applied a few times and eventually I got accepted. It has been the best experience so far. I have been on the demo team for a year now.” SrA Easley had similar experience in joining the demo team “I have been working on the F-35 for a few years now. One day I saw Maj. Wolfe fly the demo and was amazed to see the different maneuvers she flew in the demo. One of my friends had been selected for the demo team a couple years ago. He had great stories to share about his experience traveling to different air shows and that got me interested in joining the demo team. I joined the demo team in January of this year.” SSgt. Bristol got the opportunity to spend nine days traveling to Bangalore, India where the F-35A performed for the first time, and was the star of the air show there. Giving details of his experience there, SSgt. Bristol said “India was a great trip. It was cool to experience a different culture. The air show was great. We saw single-ship demos of different aircraft that we do not get to see before. Their display team is incredible, and the helicopter formation teams are a sight to see. It was an awesome experience for sure.” Performing for the home crowd is always the best show for any one and for SSgt. Bristol it is no different – “There are a lot of air shows that are memorable, but it was a Heritage Flight that we flew at my home show. It is a great feeling to bring what I do in my job in the Air Force and mix it with the traditional legacy established at the Air Museum and fly in warbirds over the Museum with my hometown crowd in attendance was one of the coolest things.”
SSgt. Bristol described the process to get in on the demo team “There is a process to apply for and get selected into the demo team. First of all, one has to be stationed in any one of the three maintenance units at Hill AFB. You must be a crew chief, or avionics, engine or if you get lucky a weapons specialist. Each year they ask for applicants around the fall time. We work with our flight chiefs who prepare a package for us and screen us as well. They make us aware of what the requirements are to be on the demo team. After that we apply and there are rounds of interviews with the existing members of the demo team. The selection is stringent since it is the 1% of the 1% if you think about thousands of us on the base at Idaho and only 13-14 members get selected.” Selecting the jets to take on air shows needs planning as well. Giving an idea about that, SSgt. Bristol said “We take jets from the 421st Fighter Generation Squadron at Hill AFB. All the jets we use are combat-coded jets so they can be flown direct into combat tomorrow if they need to. It takes a week or so to get them prepped. Fortunately, we have a two to three jets that are assigned to us for the entire season. Once you get to the first four or five air shows we get used to the quirks of a particular jet and we then know what to expect with each jet. Prepping the jet especially if we need to take it across the country gets a become intensive. We check to ensure that the fluid levels and services are replaced or at the higher side of the levels and we also do ops checks and check parts and their lifetimes and make sure they are going to hold up in the long term over the air show season. Rarely there are issues that expose themselves repetitively and it is a great feeling to finally fix that issue. Last year one of the jets had a persistent issue with the APU of sorts. We did extensive troubleshooting and had to resort to the legacy ways tracing the schematics and stuff. After that we finally isolated changed couple of parts and it was very satisfying when we finally fixed it and it did not give the same problem over the season. It was like a breath of fresh air when the fix was done.” Heading out to air shows in the season is a very time-demanding task. Last year the demo team did around 28 air shows. SSgt. Bristol gave us an insight into how the team splits the shows between themselves – “It is tough for our Superintendent and our Team Chief being on the road for around 160-170 days and that takes a toll especially if one has a family. So, we tend to split the air shows among ourselves.” On the future goals in life, SSgt. Bristol has aims to being an officer and fly the jets – “break the jets than fix them”. He added “I am in school right now. Short term is getting my degree. I will apply for the Officer Training School once I get my degree. I have a big dream to fly so I will take what I have learnt so far and apply it going forward and see how it all turns out.” As for SrA Easley “I am just going to ride the demo team out for the next couple of years. I have plans to pursue getting the Airframe and Powerplant (A&P) license and after that will go with the flow, wherever life takes me.”
Pixelsnipers also spoke with SSgt. Alex Stephens, who is the Public Affairs contact, and SSgt. Cody Polzin who is the Lead Technician for the A-10 Demo Team. SSgt. Stephens joined the team earlier this year in January while SSgt. Polzin has been with the demo team since last year. On the reasons for joining the A-10 Demo Team, SSgt. Stephens said “It is a great opportunity for me to broaden my career and see the country and I love working with the tight-knit family that is the team. I love the opportunity to showcase the mission and the combat capabilities of the A-10 to the wider world out there.” This sentiment was reinforced by SSgt. Polzin as well “All that what SSgt. Stephens said, and also, I use this opportunity to share my experiences with the Air Force with the young students and how it has gotten me to where I am today.”
One of the memorable air shows for SSgt. Polzin was the Sun’n’Fun at Lakeland in Florida, just because it is such a large conference, and we were there for a week. It was a great opportunity to see other aircraft and their maneuvers over the course of the week.” From a maintainer’s perspective, SSgt. Polzin said “We are a team of 7-8 dedicated maintainers – four crew chiefs, avionics, and engine technician. Outside of that is our Superintendent who was a crew chief, and our Team Chief who is also the environmental and electrical technician. It is a super rare event that any of our jets break down. Also, the A-10 has been in the Air Force for so long that all of our maintainers know the quirks well. I would like to take the time to highlight how awesome our maintenance team and everyone comes together to fix a persistent problem if any. The demo Pilot, Superintendent, Team Chief, and the PA folks travel to all the air shows while the team is flexible on the maintainer front.” SSgt. Stephens is looking forward to “being able to recruit and inspire the next generation. I would like to share the things that we do and their impact in the bigger scheme of things and possibly create a better future for them by joining the Air Force.” SSgt. Polzin is looking forward to another year with the team and once he is done with his time, will go back to supporting day to day operations with the normal A-10 squadrons in the Air Force.
Capt. Aimee ‘Rebel’ Fiedler is the F-16 Demo team Commander and Pilot since March 2022. She has more than 2,000 flying hours in her 6 years of military service and prior civilian flight instructor. Before joining the Air Force, Fiedler was a collegiate athlete at South Dakota State University and a civilian flight instructor. She transitioned from instruction to military service in 2016, graduating from the Air Force’s Officer Training School. Since completing her fighter training 2018, she has served in Korea and with the 20th Fighter Wing at Shaw Air Force Base. Explaining her enthusiasm for being a demo pilot, she said “Air shows inspire the next generation of fighter pilots and Airmen. They are the ones who will be flying alongside or trained to take on this mission after my time is done. I feel proud to inspire them and show them that they can do it too, as long as they commit themselves and set up for success.”
Maj. Kristin ‘Beo’ Wolfe is the F-35A Demo team Commander and Pilot since March 2020. She is an experienced fighter pilot having flown the F-22 Raptor before flying the F-35A Lightning II. She was an Instructor Pilot (IP) on the F-35A before transitioning to the demo team. Since being the demo pilot in 2020, Beo has not only participated in air shows in the US but also has traveled to the UK to fly in the Royal International Air Tatoo (RIAT) and most recently to India to showcase the mighty F-35A in the Aero-India trade show. Beo is looking forward to fly with the warbirds of the Heritage Flight “Flying with the Heritage Flight team is not actually all that difficult – it’s very scripted, and the most challenging part is making it look good to the crowd. The F-35A is an awesome airplane to be flying. It’s continuing to get upgraded, which is always cool. I’m lucky to be able to fly it and to be able to take it all over the country for people to see.” The F-35A demo routine is amazing to watch and Beo gave some further insight into how the profile was created “We had been with the Heritage Flight team for a few years flying with the Warbirds, and then in 2019 we got approved to fly aerobatic demos as well as the Heritage shows. “Dojo” Olsen worked closely with Lockheed Martin and chief test pilot Billy Flynn on an OKM model of the airplane, which is basically the brains of the F-35 but attached to a simulator. They used the simulator to write the demonstration profile, and I haven’t changed it in my three years of flying because it’s so great and the crowds always love it. We keep thinking of new maneuvers to do but we keep going back to the old profile because it’s so fun to fly and shows off every aspect of the airplane.”
Capt. Samuel ‘RaZZ’ Larson is the F-22 Demo Team Commander and Pilot since December 2022. He has accumulated over 750 hours flying the F-22 Raptor and other aircraft in training. Talking about his fascination for flying fighters, RaZZ reminisced about the time when he was growing up – “My first airshow was when I was 6 months old. I went to a lot of air shows and saw the demo flights. I remember looking up to the demo pilots on how they conducted themselves and set an example. It lit the spark for my interest in aviation. I worked for an air show magazine called World Airshow News and got a lot of opportunities to fly with the performers at the airshows. I have flown in a T-6 Texan and fly in formation with a P-51 and a P-40 from Fagen Fighters WWII Museum.” On the question of what fascinated him about the F-22 Raptor, RaZZ said “I saw the F-22 demo in 2015 at an air show before I started pilot training. I knew I wanted to fly fighters but seeing the Raptor in action had a profound impact on me and that became my goal. I used to motivate myself and work hard by visualize myself being assigned to a F-22 squadron. I am extremely humbled and privileged to have the opportunity to fly the F-22. By being a demo team pilot, I want to pay forward the inspiration that I received when I was younger.” RaZZ’s favorite maneuver while flying the demo routine is the Dedication Pass – “I like the Dedication Pass the most for what it stands for. The music, narration, and the fact that we are dedicating it to all the men and women who have gone before us – it makes it more meaningful.”
While he has been shadowing Major Joshua ‘Cabo’ Gunderson in the last year, his most memorable flight was the time when they flew back to Nellis AFB from the MCAS Miramar air show, and they flew low level in the Sidewinder military training route – “I have been flying with Cabo a lot before that and it was just great fun to fly the low level together. The photos you guys got from that were awesome. And yeah, the other day when I flew with Cabo at Langley and we practiced the formation flights before the Training course, that was special as well.” When they are not flying an air show anywhere, RaZZ and his demo team are still attached to a regular fighter squadron back at JBLE and they have to dispense their duties – for his he is still an Instructor Pilot with the squadron and apart from flying two to three demo practices a week, he still has to fly the combat sorties that they are operationally tasked with. Besides being a Demo Pilot, RaZZ is also the Team Commander and there are certain tasks that he needs to handle – “Typically those include figuring out aircraft sourcing for each air show; where do we get our jets from, and how are we going to get them and return them after the show and working out closely with the Superintendents and Team Chiefs and arranging the logistics of vehicles, lodging; planning the flying portion etc.”
Capt. Lindsay ‘MAD’ Johnson is the A-10 Demo Team Commander and Pilot. She was announced as the replacement for Maj. Haden ‘Gator’ Fullam during the training course itself. She has served in Texas, Korea and Arizona flying the A-10 amassing over 1250 flight hours including 431 combat flight hours. She was an Instructor Pilot and Flight Commander at the 357th FS at Davis-Monthan AFB. Gator has been the Demo Team Commander and Pilot since March 2021. He has had a terrific time running the demo team and has been instrumental in spreading the awareness of the Warthog platform inspiring countless individuals over the years. One of the big impact contributions from him was to apply a special Vietnam War era color scheme on the demo bird – aka Red River Hawg – to pay tribute to the 97 airmen from the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing who either made the ultimate sacrifice or were prisoners of war. Their names are inscribed on the right side on the nose of the aircraft for remembrance. “The opportunity to fly that jet is one I never thought I would have. Every time I fly the jet it has a special meaning to me, so giving my best and safest demo at air shows is without question my priority. That is enabled by the experience and professionalism on the team,” said Gator. Talking about his favorite maneuver in the demo, Gator said “It’s the very first one – the flat pass heading into the vertical – that is a ton of fun pointing the nose up 90 degrees straight up rolling the airplane is really cool.”
Some of the air shows that stand out at the top of his head were “The Klamath Falls one was pretty good. The weather was great and the folks at Oregon really took great care of us and with the setup. We did the Sun’n’Fun at Lakeland, Florida last year. That was the biggest air show. We did a ton of shows in the mid-west and we had great fun. I have many favorites for different reasons though.” Things get hectic once the air show season starts and the demo teams are pretty much on the road throughout the season. “We spend over 20 weeks minimum on the road, beginning first week of March till November so it gets busy. Lot of flying to air shows, flying back home to spend couple of days if we get home at all, else it is flying to the next one. It is a hectic life for a demo team pilot for sure.”
On the question of selecting the safety pilot and a wingman for air shows, Gator said “The team has one permanently assigned demonstration pilot, and there are actually five or six safety officers who are full-up qualified A-10 pilots of varying qualification levels, They are picked by the Wing Commander and they go through a basic training for flying air shows, the terminology used and what is expected of them as safety officers and the like. For the safety officers it is a part-time gig for them and depending on their availability and TDY schedule, we just steal one of them to the shows we go to.” Commenting on what the future holds for him, Gator replied “It was a fun experience for sure inspiring and demonstrating the aircraft and the team to the next generation out there. But now my time is up, and the A-10 Demo Team is in great hands with MAD. I will be going back to more normal operating times. I am going to stay right here, and I will be back in the 357th FS ‘Dragons’ as an Instructor Pilot next door teaching new folks on how to fly the A-10.”
We wish each and everyone in the Heritage Flight program all the best with their air shows in the future. Sincere thanks goes out to the Air Force Heritage Flight Foundation folks as well as the Public Affairs Office of the 355th Wing who supported and organized our access for photos and arranging the interviews with the demo team members. We would also like to acknowledge the informational website of the Heritage Flight Foundation which was useful in researching and using some of the excerpts for this article.