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Critically injured Thunderbirds pilot Erik Gonsalves returns to flight duty

Then-Capt. Erik “Speedy” Gonsalves, Thunderbirds Advance pilot and narrator, gives a “thumbs up” prior to flight in 2017. (USAF)

The crash of a lone Air Force Thunderbirds jet returning from a flight in June 2017 left its pilot more severely injured than previously reported as the organization on Wednesday detailed his courageous recovery and his return to flight.

In an emotional and personal video narrative produced by the Thunderbirds, Major Erik “Speedy” Gonsalves discusses candid new details of the crash which nearly killed him, and his long journey to walking again and returning to his love of flight.

Then-Capt. “Speedy” Gonsalves, who served as the Thunderbirds narrator and advanced pilot, was critically injured during landing in inclement weather following an informal familiarization flight with TSgt. Kenneth Cordova, a tactical aircraft maintainer, aboard the F-16D Fighting Falcon. Cordova, who only received minor injuries, was released from the hospital the next day while Gonsalves faced three life saving surgeries and recovery for several weeks.

The aftermath of the June 2017 crash of Thunderbird 8 jet at Dayton Airport. (USAF)

As rain and wind gusts erupted over the runway at Dayton International Airport on June 23, 2017, firefighters from Dayton and nearby Wright Patterson AFB, and airport emergency personnel worked for nearly two hours to release the trapped crew members who sat upside down — their ejection seats still armed.

In a video statement, Major Gonsalves said the weather at crash time and during the rescue was “some of the worst weather Dayton had seen in its history”. As the jet aircraft was landing in rain driven, overcast conditions with low visibility at 12:20 p.m., it flipped upside down and crashed.

“After the accident that happened, the first person I saw was our maintenance officer Thunderbird 11 Major Smith and Sr MSgt Trip Holden — the first two guys on the scene — followed shortly there after by the Dayton Fire Rescue, and 30 minutes later rescue the Wright Patt Fire Rescue Crash Rescue guys came over,” he said. “I credit those guys with saving my life and saving Ken’s life.”

The crash left Gonsalves with two broken ribs; two fractures of his left leg; internal bleeding; his right ankle was severely fractured, and a torn patella tendon, the Thunderbirds announced on Wednesday. “Every morning when I get up, I look at my scars,” Gonsalves began in a somber tone. “At the six-inch incision over my ribs where they removed a piece of metal that nearly took my life. At the slice down my lat(eral) where the doctor went in to stop me from drowning in my own blood.”

“Immediately up to surgery and I had three surgeries (at Miami Valley Hospital) and I had some of the best surgeons in the world operating on me and they saved my life,” Maj. Gonsalves said. In the days following the life saving care, Speedy began to understand he was in for a long recovery period.

Gonsalves looked toward positive goals — small at first such as walking — to resume flying again. As he worked toward recovery, he pushed himself with the power of positive thinking to achieve these goals beginning with walking again.

Gonsalves, who left the Thunderbirds in March 2018 to transfer to Davis-Montham AFB, AZ, is now taking an active role as he returns to piloting the A-10C Thunderbolt II, aka the Warthog.

Air Force Major Erik Gonsalves sits poised aboard a A-10C Thunderbolt II in 2016. (USAF)

“The power of positive thinking and having a positive mental attitude going forward is so crucial, but its not something you can do alone,” he said. “I would stress to people out there whether you’re struggling with something physically or mentally is that you need help from others and you need a support structure.”

(Charles Atkeison reports on aerospace and technology. Follow his updates via social media @Military_Flight.)

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Charles Atkeison

Written by Charles Atkeison

Charles A Atkeison is a long time aerospace journalist having covered both military and civilian aviation, plus 30 space shuttle launches from Cape Canaveral. He has produced multimedia aerospace content for CNN, London's Sky News, radio, print, and the web for twenty years. From flying with his father at age 5 to soaring as a VIP recently with the Navy's Blue Angels and USAF Thunderbirds, Charles continues to enjoy all aspects of flight.

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