WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds on Friday announced the addition of new pilots and support personnel for 2018 who will replace several team members departing when the current season closes.
America’s Ambassadors in Blue will spend the winter season training and preparing the new pilots for a slate of 36 airshows and three special fly-over events. Their close formation flights will have the aircraft separated by just one meter during many of their maneuvers.
They will kick-off their next season with a fly over of the Daytona 500 followed by seven airshows in the southeast and one in California.
“The entire field of officer applicants this year was phenomenal,” Thunderbirds commander Lt. Col. Jason Heard said on Friday. “The seven officers selected for the team will no doubt bring the level of pride, precision, and professionalism to uphold the tradition of excellence of our team.”
Lt. Col. Heard is currently mid-way through his first of two seasons with the Thunderbirds. He will welcome four new pilots to the team each having logged over 1500 hours of flight time piloting an F-16 Fighting Falcon.
Current Thunderbird 2 pilot Maj. Ryan Bodenheimer will conclude his two years of service, and Capt. William Graeff will take over. Capt. Graeff will fly as the left wing pilot in the team’s diamond formation. He has served at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas.
Capt. Stephen Del Bagno from Eglin Air Force Base in Florida will join the team as Thunderbird 4 replacing current slot pilot Maj. Nick Krajicek. Capt. “Cajun” Del Bagno will become the first F-35 Lightning II pilot to join the Thunderbirds. Cajun has been busy perfecting the ability of the F-35 to fire air-to-air missles, and visiting a few airshow sites including Montgomery’s Maxwell AFB.
Capt. Matthew Kimmel of Shaw Air Force Base, S.C. joins the team as their new opposing solo pilot — Thunderbird 6. He will replace Maj. Whit Collins as Collins moves up to the lead solo position aboard Thunderbird 5. Current Thunderbird 5 pilot Maj. Alex Turner will be departing the team at the end of 2017.
The Thunderbirds also announced Maj. Eric Gorney as their new operations officer for 2018. Maj. Gorney has served at Hickham, AFB in Hawaii, and will wear no. 7 as he performs the logistics duties of “air space coordination, ground communication with the pilots in the air and safety observation,” the team added on Friday.
The team’s current airshow narrator and advance pilot, Capt. Erik Gonsalves, will remain with the team through the 2018 season. Capt. Gonsalves serves as Thunderbird 8 as is the first to arrive at an airshow site to check on logistics and give media and VIP’s a familurization flight aboard a F-16D jet.
The Thunderbirds new executive officer is Capt. Lauren Venturini who is currently serving at Ghedi Air Base, Italy. Capt. Venturini will take on the challenging role which will include leadership of the team’s budget and how it is spent; and will oversee the support operations and training of each team member. She will replace outgoing Thunderbird 10 Capt. Angelina Urbina.
Capt. Kassandra Mangosing will become the squadron’s new maintenance officer replacing Maj. Warren Smith. As Thunderbird 11, Capt. Mangosing will spend this winter preparing to take over “the operational capability of 11 F-16 fighter jets, and the management of more than 90 Airmen in various aircraft maintenance specialties,” the Thunderbirds stated.
And, the new public affairs officer and Thunderbird 12 team member is Maj. Raymond Geoffroy. He is also currently assigned to Hickham AFB, and will join the team this autumn to shadow current PAO Capt. Sara Harper. Maj. Geoffroy will take the lead in media relations and public outreach programs.
According to the squadron, “The Thunderbirds commander (Lt. Col. Heard) selects four to eight finalists to travel to the team’s hangar at Nellis Air Force Base, where each pilot candidate performs an evaluation flight in the backseat of an F-16D. These check flights consist of formation flying and some basic fighter maneuvers. The commander evaluates the finalists and sends his recommendations through the chain of command, up to the commander of Air Combat Command, before final selections are made.”
In addition to the new officers, many new maintenance and logistics personnel will join the team in November.
(Charles A Atkeison reports on aerospace and technology. Follow his updates via Social Media @Military_Flight.)