Tech. Sgt. Conrad Nelson, crew chief for Thunderbird No. 8, steps into his jet Thursday at Sheppard Air Force Base.
What better act is there to help Sheppard Air Force Base and its surrounding communities celebrate three significant anniversaries than the Air Force Demonstration Team Thunderbirds?
The high-performance aerial demo team arrived Thursday afternoon — delayed by weather for a bit — to get ready for their high-octane show Saturday and Sunday at Sheppard's 2016 Open House & Air Show.
The base is also celebrating its 75th anniversary as well as the 50th anniversary of German air force pilots training at the base and the 35th anniversary of the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training program.
The premier demonstration team is certainly the highlight act for the two-day spectacle, but there is a much deeper tie between the Thunderbirds and this North Texas base. Looking at their roster, quite a few of these airmen — enlisted and officers — began their Air Force careers at Sheppard.
Capt. Sara Harper, public affairs officer for the team, is one of those, cutting her PA teeth fresh out of Auburn University in November 2010. She departed for Spangdahlem, Germany, in 2012 and then was at MacDill AFB, Florida, before her selection to the Thunderbirds.
"It (Sheppard) was the perfect place to start because all of the (technical) training that happens here as well as the 80th Flying Training Wing — the ENJJPT program — I learned all about pilot training and what goes into that," she said.
Harper, from Tyrone, Georgia, said her roughly two years at Sheppard provided an "incredible foundation" for things to come in her career, learning about the various training missions and how the base fits into the bigger Air Force picture.
She said she has seen quality airmen go through Sheppard the Thunderbirds are looking for to fill their ranks and continue their mission as "America's Ambassadors in Blue."
Of the 120 members of the team, 90 are in aircraft maintenance career fields and received their technical training at Sheppard. Crew chiefs Tech. Sgt. Conrad Nelson and Staff Sgt. Todd Hughes are two who started their Air Force journey at Sheppard, Nelson in 2008 and Hughes in 2009 at the 82nd Training Wing's 362nd Training Squadron.
"It brings back a lot of old memories where you thought, 'Man, I'm here forever. I'm never going to leave and I just can't wait to graduate,'" said Goodyear, Arizona-native Nelson. "Everything you learned here you still use on a day-to-day basis, so it just brings back those memories of tech school."
Neither said being a member of the Thunderbirds ever entered their minds when they were first beginning their careers. They were focused on their first and second assignments following their time in North Texas.
Providing operational maintenance at Luke AFB, Arizona, Kunsan AB, Korea, or Spangdahlem is a little different from what they do with the Thunderbirds.
Instead of loading munitions, making sure the jet engine works and avionics are functioning, maintainers with the demonstration team, aside from maintenance, are making sure the aircraft is clean, smoke oil is loaded, paying visits to hospitals and schools and being the voice of the Air Force.
"As far as doing maintenance now on the Thunderbirds, for me it weighs in a lot more in the sense of pride," said Hughes, a native of Williamsport, Pennsylvania. "It's awesome to be able to do what we do to keep these jets in the air for the public."
The Sheppard connection doesn't end with Harper, Nelson or Hughes. Two of the jet jockies learned their craft at ENJJPT. Lt. Col. Christopher Hammond, team boss and pilot of Thunderbird No. 1, and Thunderbird No. 2 pilot Capt. Ryan Bodenheimer both graduated from the flying training side of the base.
Bodenheimber, an Air Force "brat" from Colorado Springs, Colorado, graduated from the program in October 2008 and was assigned to fly the F-15E Strike Eagle.
He said having the bedrock of learning from some of the best fighter pilots in the world at ENJJPT laid the foundation for his career, and his opportunity with the Thunderbirds.
"Being able to start with a foundation like that is incredible," he said. "You can't ask for anything better."
Being on the team, Bodenheimer is also able to see the contributions of Sheppard's aircraft maintenance training mission and the quality of airman produced.
"The maintenance crews that we have are absolutely the best in the Air Force," he said. "Them having the bedrock from here from the training they got is clear that whatever is going on here is working and it's doing an incredible job to produce outcomes like we have here with the Thunderbirds and all over the Air Force."
Story and photo gallery: http://www.timesrecordnews.com