Thunderbirds delight crowd at McConnell air show

The Air Force Thunderbirds perform during the "Wings Over McConnell" air show on Saturday. (Sept. 27, 2012)
The Air Force Thunderbirds perform during the "Wings Over McConnell" air show on Saturday. (Sept. 27, 2012) The Wichita Eagle

When 13-year-old Caroline Jensen first heard the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds roar overhead, she knew she was destined to become an Air Force fighter pilot.

Now at 37, she holds a special distinction among the elite Air Force demonstration squadron: She’s the first mother to pilot one of the F-16s. Each time her son, 3-year-old Finn, sees her slip into her flight suit, Jensen said, he knows his mom is headed out to fly.

“He says, ‘Oh mommy, you are going to fly Thunderbirds,’ ” she said, chuckling.

“I’m excited and looking forward to the day that I can start teaching him to fly a plane.”

Jensen, an Air Force major and the only woman piloting one of six Thunderbirds this season, flew Saturday and returns for a second show Sunday at the Wings Over McConnell Open House and Air Show at McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita. She flies jet No. 3 — known as the right wing —skimming as close as 18 inches to other aircraft in flight.

"There’s a lot of trust and teamwork," Jensen, of River Falls, Wis., said of her fellow pilots. "It’s a great representation of what the Air Force is all about."

Women have flown Thunderbird jets before; Jensen said they paved the path for her "to feel like a pilot, and not a female pilot."

Jensen is in her first of two seasons flying with the team. She’s logged 2,500 flight hours, including more than 200 flying combat missions over Iraq in late 2007 and early 2008.

"It’s really humbling," she said about being a Thunderbird pilot. Nearly 700,000 men and women are in the Air Force, several of whom are parents serving in combat. "But it’s great to represent all of those moms and dads who are away from their families."

The Thunderbirds take off at 3:30 p.m. Sunday.

Static ground shows include tours of a KC-135 Stratotanker refueler, an F-16 fighter jet and other military aircraft. There’s also a food court, kids zone with crafts and games, a special performances by the U.S. Army Golden Knights parachute team and aircraft flyovers.

"We are really thrilled that some folks decided to make this part of their weekend," Air Force Lt. Col. Pamela Freeland said Saturday. About 75,000 people are expected each day. "Come out and, you know, get a little taste of military hospitality."

Saturday afternoon, spectators scattered along Pawnee and Rock Road. Some sat in lawn chairs or spread blankets across the grass. Others shielded their eyes from the sun as they gazed southward from the backs of vans or pickup trucks. In the distance, parachuters — a favorite of Ankeny, Iowa, resident Carol Moehnke — floated lazily to the ground.

Meanwhile, thousands perched on McConnell’s flightline, eager to see the Thunderbirds’ aerial stunts.

"All four of them were about to crash, but then they went different ways," said 7-year-old Jager Lewis — wowed by the Thunderbirds’ four-jet block formations, which take the pilots up to an altitude of 7,000 feet and as low as 150 feet above the crowd.

Jager attended with his parents, Sarah Lewis and former Marine David Lewis of Peabody. The Lewises said that, in addition to supporting the military by attending the show, they came to McConnell to see their oldest daughter join the Air Force. Katherine Lewis, 18, was sworn in Saturday, Sarah Lewis said.

After the Thunderbirds’ performance, Stephanie Lewis sat beside her mom. At 14, she’s just a year older than Caroline Jensen was when she decided to be a fighter pilot.

For Stephanie, the thrill of seeing the Air Force demonstration squadron during her third air show made her think about following her sister’s — and Jensen’s — career paths.

“Yeah,” she said, when asked whether she considered becoming a pilot. “It looks daring and crazy.”

“I enjoyed watching the tricks. That’s pretty much my favorite part.”

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