Thunderbirds come from a long line of tradition, and training


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The Thunderbirds perform at the 2014 Arctic Thunder Open House air show at JBER last weekend.

CINTHIA RITCHIE

JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- In 1947, while the jet age was still in its infancy, military aviation hurtled into the future with the creation of the U.S. Air Force as a separate service. Six years later, on May 25, 1953, the Air Force’s official air demonstration team, designated the 3600th Air Demonstration Unit, was activated at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz.

The unit adopted the name “Thunderbirds,” influenced in part by the strong Native American culture and folklore from the southwestern United States where Luke Air Force Base is located. From these humble beginnings, the Air Force Thunderbird legend was born.

Air Force Capt. Lucas Buckley, U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron Thunderbirds maintenance officer, is a member of that legend, with a passion for using the aerial stunts and other performances to tell the Air Force story.

“I commissioned through the Air Force Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2004,” said the maintenance officer, dubbed ‘Thunderbird 11.’ “I wanted to serve my country and the Air Force. [I wanted to pursue a career that] best suited my personality. I was afforded an AFROTC scholarship, which covered a large portion of my tuition costs; that was also a big factor for me while considering universities and military services to attend and join.

“As a kid, my Dad used to take me and my brothers to air shows around the Midwest,” the native of Rosemount, Minn., said. “I had an opportunity to see the Thunderbirds on several occasions growing up, and it was an absolute inspiration for future military service. I joined the Thunderbirds to not only represent the hardworking and dedicated across our Air Force, but also to tell my story.”

During the 2014 season, the team will spend more than 200 days on the road representing Airmen during its 59th year.

Last October, in an internal memo to military service chiefs, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel stressed a continuing need to maintain military demonstration teams.

“Community and public outreach is a crucial departmental activity that reinforces trust and confidence in the United

States military and in its most important asset - people,” Hagel asserted. “It is our obligation to sustain that trust well into the future.”

Millions of people have witnessed the Thunderbirds demonstrations, and in turn, they’ve seen the pride, professionalism and dedication of hundreds of thousands of Airmen serving at home and abroad, Buckley said.

“Each public event or engagement is an opportunity for me to connect with moms, dads, and young people about opportunities that exist while serving our country,” Thunderbird 11 said. “Being a member of the Thunderbird organization is a true honor for me, and I’m humbled to serve in the military in this capacity. It means I have the opportunity to showcase what military men and women around the world are doing for their country.”

The Thunderbirds’ performances will include an opportunity to get their autographs, a re-enlistment ceremony for more than 15 Airmen and Soldiers on July 25, a delayed enlistment ceremony for more than 50 recruits on July 26, and a recognition ceremony on July 27.

“Although the show we put on is a small picture of the Air Force, it is an avenue to begin the conversation with young people about the opportunities involved with military service,” he said. “In short, we recruit, retain, and represent our Air Force.”

Thunderbirds have the unique opportunity to tell the Air Force story to people who don’t have regular contact with the military, he said.

“We are in a unique position to tell people the great things the Air Force is doing each and every day both training and executing the mission in contingency operations around the world,” he said. “That interaction helps us recruit the next generation of American Airman that will join and continue to further the mission.

“Our goal is to communicate that the Air Force is a service of dedicated and professional Airmen. We have a little bit of excitement for everyone, whether you are interested in joining the Air Force or just want to know a little bit more about the service.”

Each year brings another opportunity for the team to represent those who deserve the most credit: the everyday, hard-working Airmen serving America and defending freedom.

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