What it's like to fly in an Air Force fighter jet
If you’ve been to the Superbowl or to an air show, you may have caught the United States Air Force Thunderbirds, the Air Force’s demonstration team, whizzing by as they pull off skilled maneuvers in their fighter jets.
The Thunderbirds have been astonishing audiences with their advanced flying skills at air shows across the country since 1953, with fascinating tricks that are as tough to perform as they might seem.
Travel + Leisure caught up with the team for their first airshow of the year in Titusville, Florida, to learn about everything from just how fast their planes fly to how they pull off those crowd-pleasing tricks.
Created just six years after the US Air Force became a separate service of the US military, the Thunderbirds became the first aerial demonstration team to break, and double, the speed of sound with the supersonic F-100 Super Sabre in 1956.
The Federal Aviation Administration eventually banned supersonic flights, but the Thunderbirds still hit speeds as high as 1,500 miles per hour on their jets today.
They currently fly F-16 Falcons, the Air Force’s premiere multi-role fighter jet which dates back to 1993. The jets can pull nine times the force of gravity, and have a weight-to-thrust ratio that's greater than one to one — meaning the plane can actually accelerate as it's going straight up.
"It's like the coolest rollercoaster ride you've been on, but you have complete control over it," Major Nick Krajicek said about the ride.
Since pilots are flying under immense pressure, they perform breathing exercises throughout the flight and wear both a G-suit — a body suit that inflates air to maintain blood flow and pressure — and a helmet with a mask that regulates oxygen.
"It feels like going from a normal pressure to having a grizzly bear sit on your chest," Jason Hughes, the team’s chief master sergeant, said.
The Thunderbirds always showcase the most advanced current fighter jet at airshows, demonstrating both how precise and strong these planes can be.
Some of their go-to tricks include the High Bomb Burst and the Sneak Pass. The High Bomb Burst is when when the jets go up in the air, break in different directions, turn upside down towards the ground, and start accelerating at speeds of roughly 400 miles per hour before flying towards one another.
“Trust is tremendous with this one because we all have to be at certain altitudes to avoid hitting one another, and we typically miss each other by just about 30 feet,” Bodenheimer told T+L.
The Sneak Pass is when a solo jet flies around the corner of the crowd line at about 500 miles per hour, surprising the audience.
Aside from the adrenaline-pumping experience of performing harrowing tricks in a jet, the Thunderbirds get to experience something else most don't: incredible bird's eye views of places rarely seen from above. They get this opportunity because the team can fly into FAA restricted airspace like over NASA's launch pads and historic buildings in Florida's Cape Canaveral as seen in the video above.
On the flight in the video, Erik Gonsalves, the team’s advanced pilot, and Hughes were able to see lush greenery from the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, which spans some 140,000 acres in the area.
They also caught Nasa's Vehicle Assembly Building which is so big that former launch director, Mike Leinbach, of the Kennedy Space Center said it even has its own weather.
Seeing details like the burn marks that remain from former launches was a humbling experience for the duo.
“There's so much history on this coastline, and I just remember thinking in my head that this is where space shuttles used to land and that everything was pioneered right from this airspace,” Hughes told T+L. “It’s something I’ll never forget.”
They also get some stellar views of the crowd from above.
“I love seeing the mountains that stretch on and on, but at beach shows, when you look down and see the landscape of beaches and know you’re putting a smile on uncountable amounts of people as they stretch up and down the shore line is just incredible,” he said.
The Thunderbirds typically do around 75 shows per year, which are free to attend if you want to catch their maneuvers in person. They also participate in school, hospital, and veteran's home visits throughout the year.