A new cohort of Thunderbird pilots has been announced as the U.S. Air Force’s premier aerial demonstration squadron heads into the 2019 season and shakes off a series of aircraft accidents that plagued the elite pilots over the past few years.
Some of the seasoned Thunderbird pilots are getting moved up the stack while new ones are brought into the rotation, Air Combat Command announced Friday. There are a dozen officer positions on the team, each of which are two-year tours.
“By design, the position openings are staggered, allowing the squadron to maintain continuity of experience and leadership,” according to the unit announcement.
“This year’s exceptional officer applicant pool reflects the incredible degree of talent, motivation and diversity that exists throughout our Air Force. It was a tough selection process, but ultimately these officers rose to the top,” said Lt. Col. Kevin Walsh, the outgoing Thunderbird commander. “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.”
The unit’s new commander and Thunderbird No. 1 will be Lt. Col. John Caldwell. He is currently serving as the commander of the 28th Test and Evaluation Squadron at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. As part of Caldwell’s two-fold title, he will command a force of more than 120 enlisted airmen and 11 officers, as well as lead all the Thunderbirds' flight demonstrations. Caldwell replaces Walsh in that role.
Caldwell is a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions dropping ordnance in a danger-close scenario on enemy elements attacking U.S. and allied forces in Nuristan province, Afghanistan, in 2011, according to a 2012 Air Force press release.
Capt. Michael Brewer, from the 334th Fighter Squadron out of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina, was selected as Thunderbird No. 3, the team’s right wing pilot. Brewer is replacing Maj. Nate Hofmann.
“He will fly as close as 3 feet from the No. 1 jet during flight formations, demonstrating the teamwork and precision of America’s Air Force,” according to the unit press release.
Maj. Whit Collins, who previously flew as the lead solo pilot, will transition to the slot pilot position as Thunderbird No. 4. Similar to Brewer’s role, Collins will fly in close formation with the other demonstration pilots, near the tail of the No. 1 aircraft and between the two wingmen. Collins replaces Maj. Nick Krajicek.
Capt. Michelle Curran, from the 355th Fighter Squadron out of Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth, Texas, was chosen as Thunderbird No. 6, the team’s opposing solo pilot.
The solo pilot performs maneuvers showcasing the maximum capabilities of the F-16 aircraft.
Meanwhile, Maj. Matt Kimmel, the current opposing solo pilot, will transition to the lead solo position in 2019.
Maj. Jason Markzon, previously an F-16 pilot assigned to the 13th Fighter Squadron, Misawa Air Base, Japan, will become Thunderbird No. 8, the team’s advance pilot and narrator.
Markzon’s duties include heading to show sites ahead of the larger team, coordinating logistical details with the local show organizers and narrating to the crowd during performances. He is replacing Maj. Branden Felker.
Finally, Lt. Col. Noel Colls, a medical doctor, flight surgeon and family practice resident assigned to the 60th Medical Operations Squadron, Travis Air Force Base, California, will become Thunderbird No. 9, the team’s flight surgeon.
Colls will provide medical care for more than 130 squadron members and keep the team in optimal health. Colls will replace Maj. William Goncharow in this role.
The new lineup comes after a series of high-profile incidents that highlighted the still dangerous nature of the team’s aerial demonstrations.
In early April, Thunderbird pilot Maj. Stephen Del Bagno was killed in an F-16 crash at the Nevada Test and Training range, during what the Air Force called a routine aerial demonstration training flight.
Then, last June, an F-16D from the Thunderbirds crashed at the Dayton International Airport in Ohio after landing too fast and skidding off a wet runway. The aircraft overturned on grass, destroying the $29 million fighter jet and injuring the pilot.
Also last year, the former Thunderbirds commander, Lt. Col. Jason Heard, was relieved of command after the commander of the 57th Wing at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada “lost confidence in his leadership and risk management style,” the Air Force said at the time. Heard had taken command in January 2017, and was effectively relieved at the conclusion of the 2017 season.
Finally, in June 2016, a Thunderbird pilot crashed after a flyover of the Air Force Academy’s graduation ceremony. The Accident Investigation Board that reviewed that incident said the crash was caused by a malfunctioning throttle trigger. That pilot ejected and landed safely, but the $29 million F-16CM was destroyed.
Kyle Rempfer was an editor and reporter who has covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.