LAS VEGAS — The Air Force Thunderbirds announced the selection of four new pilots and a medical doctor on Friday in support of their 2019 season, including the squadron’s second female solo pilot in the team’s storied history.
The Thunderbirds will launch their 66th season in March 2019 with two performances in Florida and one in Arizona. Current Thunderbird pilots Capt. Will Graeff will remain as right wing, and current opposing solo Major Matt Kimmel will move up to lead solo.
“This year’s exceptional officer applicant pool reflects the incredible degree of talent, motivation, and diversity that exists throughout our Air Force,” Thunderbirds commander Lt. Col. Kevin Walsh stated on Friday. “It was a tough selection process, but ultimately these officers rose to the top.”
The Thunderbirds will welcome a new commander for next season as Lt. Col. John “Brick” Caldwell departs Eglin Air Force Base and it’s Florida beaches for the high desert of Nevada. Lt. Col. Caldwell will replace Lt. Col. Walsh as he takes charge of the 11 officers and 120 enlisted Airmen who make up America’s Ambassadors in Blue.
In 2012, a then-Major Caldwell was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his quick actions as pilot of an F-16 jet in response to several attacks on American and allied forces by the enemy while serving in Afghanistan in 2011.
Capt. Michael “Thorny” Brewer has been selected as Thunderbird 3 and right wing pilot for 2019. Capt. Brewer, who has been stationed at Seymour Johnson AFB, North Carolina, was a commercial pilot prior to his military service, and later served overseas as an accomplished F-15 combat pilot.
Current Thunderbird lead solo pilot in the number 5 jet, Maj. Whit Collins, will transition over to Thunderbird 4 as the new slot pilot. Collins will replace Maj. Nick Krajicek who returned to the team in April in the wake of Major Stephen Del Bagno’s tragic F-16 crash.
Capt. Michelle “Mace” Curran, currently stationed at NAS Forth Worth’s 355th Fighter Squadron, has been selected as only the fourth female pilot in Thunderbirds history and only their second female solo pilot. It’s an honor she will carry forward to her new squadron at Nellis AFB.
“There are so many strong women who have paved the way for me to be able to do what I do today,” Capt. Curran said in a 2017 Air Force interview. “From the WASPs in WWII, to the first female fighter pilot in the Air Force, Jeannie Leavitt. They have broken barriers and done great things.”
Curran, who was selected as the first female pilot in the 355th FS, enjoys the excitement of being behind the stick of an F-16 Fighting Falcon. She was promoted to F-16 instructor pilot in 2017.
“Flying was what appealed to me most when I thought ‘military’ and that is what drew me specifically to the Air Force,” Curran adds. “I think you feel most alive when you are experiencing something new and exciting, or something that takes you outside your comfort zone and maybe scares you just a little.”
The Thunderbirds advance pilot and air show narrator for next season will be Major Jason Markzon, who is currently assigned to 13th Fighter Squadron in Japan. Major Markzon will work hard this winter memorizing his script as he announces the maneuvers and behind the scenes details during each air show next year.
The team also selected its new flight surgeon in Lt. Col. (Dr.) Noel “Tums” Colls who is currently serving at California’s Travis AFB. As Thunderbird 9, Colls will provide physical check-up of the team, as well as monitor pilot health during practices and flight demonstrations.
“The Thunderbirds are proud to welcome these leaders aboard as they assume responsibility for showcasing the pride, precision, and professionalism of more than 660,000 total force Airmen serving around the world,” Walsh added.
(Charles A. Atkeison reports on aerospace and technology. Follow his updates via social media @Military_Flight.)