The Thunderbirds may be grounded from flying over the May 29 Air Force Academy graduation, but that is not stopping a fleet of historic planes from making an appearance. (Dennis Rogers / Air Force)
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The signature flyover of the Air Force Academy graduation May 29 will be a little more historical this year.
The sequestration-mandated budget cuts that grounded 17 combat squadrons included the Thunderbird F-16s, the Air Force’s flight demonstration team, which typically flies over a stadium full of newly matriculated, hat-tossing second lieutenants. That’s where the Texas Flying Legends Museum and its World War II-era planes come in.
“Once we knew sequester was a reality, we immediately started making phone calls in order to see if there was an opportunity for our organization to honor these cadets and their family members by flying over and performing with our World War II airplane fleet,” Texas Flying Museum President Tyson T. Voelkel said.
The group of volunteer pilots will bring two P-51 Mustangs, one each of a P-40K Warhawk, FG-1D Corsair, TBM-3E Avenger, B-25 Mitchell, Japanese Zero and FM-2P Wildcat for the Academy flyover, Voelkel said.
The Thunderbids have not logged a flight hour since April 5, but “this squadron does a whole lot more than flying airplanes,” said Lt. Col. Greg Moseley, commander and lead pilot of the team.
Since early April, members of the 130-person squadron have focused on local outreach, including working in food banks and Habitat for Humanity projects. The Thunderbirds typically travel for more than 200 days during the year, so the standdown has given them more time to interact with their home base, Moseley said.
The team also has taken its outreach online, doing multiple Facebook chats and “Ask Me Anything” interviews on the social news site Reddit. Airmen also are taking Community College of the Air Force and professional military education classes.
Maintainers have moved the team’s Block 52 F-16s into maintenance and have been taking classes. Pilots spend two to three days per week in full mission simulators at the team’s headquarters on Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.
“From the day-to-day standpoint, we are not as busy as we were on the road,” Moseley said. “We are staying busy at Nellis, our pilots are practicing what they can. It’s challenging.”
But as the grounding drags on, the pilots are losing currency and will require more training before the team is able to perform again. Moseley estimates if pilots stand down until Oct. 1, new pilots won’t begin flying until mid-January, and the team will not be able to leave for air shows until mid-May.