Thunderbirds Ride Debrief – Things I Might Have Done Differently

This is a regular blog post. If you’re looking for links to show audio or show notes, please check out the other posts.

(Check out the most recent version of the “single” of Thunderbird Groove (the September 21 version)! The underlying music will be the theme and background for the episode. This “single” version is for starting as you accelerate down the on-ramp in your car or plugging into the aux input in your Flight Design CT and cranking up as you rotate!)

As I put together the grand production that will be the summary episode for the Thunderbirds ride, I’m reviewing all of the audio and video. As I do that, a few things have occurred to me that I’d do differently or to which I’d pay more attention if I had the opportunity. In addition to possibly being entertaining to readers generally, it might also be helpful to future media riders.

Bear in mind as you read this that I’m very proud of how well I did during the ride and very, very grateful to the Thunderbirds for the opportunity. I’m not beating myself up on any of these points. But it’s always good to look back and evaluate. Heck, the jet teams themselves review and deconstruct every flight looking for improvement. Why shouldn’t I?

1. I’d ask for stick time. I was very intent on being a good guest in the cockpit and didn’t want to ask Maj Mulhare for time on the flight controls for fear that I’d put him in the position of having to say no. Having spent some more time on YouTube and other places since the ride, I’ve seen several rides during which the rider gets stick time. I wish I had asked. Especially now that I’ve had more time in the Citabria and have added to the aerobatic experience that I had before the F-16 ride. I’d love to have done a loop. I know that most of the media riders who got stick time basically did rolls and that looked like a lot of fun. But I’d love to have been able to take the stick and do a loop. With assistance from the front seat on the pull and the power setting? Of course! But I wish I’d asked for stick time. I repeat – I’m not beating myself up and in no way was the ride less than sublime. I just wish I’d asked for stick time.

2. I’d have checked the headrest position prior to takeoff. You can see me in the video on the takeoff roll realizing that my head (with helmet) is about to weigh 40 pounds and trying to figure out where to put it for the pull. The aircraft decides for me. I’d check it out upon starting taxi and lay back at about 250 KIAS on takeoff.

3. I wouldn’t have “hooked” as much early on. “Hooking” is, of course, tensing everything from your toes through your calves, thighs, butt cheeks, and abdomen and breaching in short three-second exchanges, the better to keep blood in your noggin. “Hooking” because it helps to say the word “hook” (heavy on the “k” at the end) to shut off the breath you just took and use it to tense. I think I missed out on some of the conversation with Maj Mulhare because I didn’t know what to expect in terms of gee load at various times. I basically started hooking every time the airplane gave me a hug (i.e. when the gee suit started inflating). It resulted in come of my responses sounding more tense than they needed to be. I’d have sounded a little more macho and in control if I’d have just relaxed through everything other than the nine-gee pull. Don’t get me wrong. You’re going to need to hook your head off to stay conscious during the nine-gee pull. I got down to about 20 degrees of usable vision in the center with everything else black as night and leprechauns and unicorns dancing around in that narrow little 20 degrees of what I had left. But I think that one could relax a little and only strain when told and be absolutely fine. Remember that your heart will usually keep blood in your head up to about four gees and they’re not going to hit you with more than that without a little warning.

4. The ATC radio (COM 1) turned out to be mixed very high in the overall audio loop, but I couldn’t hear it very well. I could hear Maj Mulhare well, but realized only after listening to the audio that I was talking during ATC communications and that Maj Mulhare probably couldn’t hear me very well. It’s actually probably just as well because I later realized that there was a fair amount of negotiation with Chicago Center about whether we’d be able to use the Hersey MOA and I would have freaked out at the though that we might get to the aerobatic space and not be able to maneuver. In any case, I would have asked how the audio mix was up front and whether I was balanced well with both COM radios.

5. I’d have sat up a little straighter for most of the ride. The F-16 cockpit has you reclining about 30 degrees, but you can have your head up a little more than that. It kind of makes you look more like a rag doll than you probably are if you’re reclined more than you have to be.

6. I’d have locked my shoulder straps for the whole ride. It’s true that you don’t really need them much and it’s not necessary to lock them for safety of the ride. But you do dangle a little more than is comfortable when you’re inverted in the slow roll and you get tossed around a little more than you otherwise would in the four-point- and eight-point rolls and at the end of the four-roll series. It’s dramatic and kind of cool to see me rise in my seat with the zero or slight-negative gee, but I’d rather look more like a steely-eyed fighter pilot with only my noggin whipping around. It also would have made grabbing the towel racks a little less inviting or necessary.

7. I wouldn’t have grabbed the towel racks as much as I did. The towel racks run horizontally along the longitudinal axis on either side of the lower part of the canopy. If you’ve seen the inside of an F-16D cockpit, it will me immediately obvious and unmistakable why they’re called towel racks. Nothing wrong with grabbing them. But you just don’t look as much the steely-eyed F-16 driver if you’re grabbing them. You’re clearly a passenger. If you keep your hands in your lap or on the tops of your legs, they’re off camera and it’s easier to imagine that you’re actually flying the aircraft.

8. I’d have had something witty to say at the end of the nine-gee pull to demonstrate to Maj Mulhare and the audience that I had come through conscious and happy. I actually made it through quite well and I can see mu chest rising and falling continuously with each hook all the way through. But I hadn’t come up with something to say to demonstrate it. “I’m conscious” would have seemed boring at best and defensive at worst. You’re a little busy getting ready for the pull, so you need to have something already thought up and ready to go. “Is that all you got?” might not have been appropriate, but something witty would have been nice.

I’ll probably add to this post as time goes on. I hope that this is helpful to any future media rider or to anyone trying to get further into my head to figure out what is was like. It was a singular experience and I think you’re going to like the summary episode when it comes out.

Thanks again to the USAF Thunderbirds and Maj Tony Mulhare! If the episodes so far aren’t testament to the impression that the ride made, the music and the upcoming episode (and the fact that I’m writing about it almost three months after the fact) should be. Man, what a ride!

Video from My F-16 Aerobatic Demo Flight with USAF Thunderbird No. 8, Maj Tony Mulhare

It’s here! The video from my ride in the F-16D with USAF Thunderbird No. 8, Maj Tony Mulhare.

Many thanks to Will Hawkins of Wilco Films for his video editing expertise and for spending hours he doesn’t have making this a really great production.

Stay tuned for the big summary audio episode of the show covering the ride from beginning to end in great detail. The episode will include audio from the suit-up, the briefing, the flight, and the demo the next day. It’ll be tied together by Thunderbird Groove, the original music by 7600 (the ad hoc band of aviator musicians that collaborates over the Internet) featuring me on guitars, drums, and bass, Scott Cannizzaro on guitars, keyboards, and sound design, and the mighty F-16 on noise!

Preflight Briefing with Thunderbird 7

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These are the show notes to an audio episode. You can listen online right here by clicking:

While I’m working on the music and other elements of the summary episode for the Thunderbirds ride, I thought I’d tease you a little more. As you know, I was the alternate, but got called in to suit up in case the primary rider’s camera crew failed to show up. (You gotta love ace photographer Tim Reed, who was there for me, camera in hand and snapping away. Thanks, Tim!)

After about 45 minutes, I had caught up to the primary rider in the suit-up procedure and I joined him for the preflight briefing with the demo pilot, LtCol Rob Skelton, the Thunderbirds’ Operations Officer. Here’s audio of that briefing.

Ultimately, the primary rider’s camera crew arrived just in time and he flew that day. But the Thunderbirds were kind enough to fly me the next day. I also recorded the preflight briefing with Maj Tony Mulhare, Thunderbird 8, who flew me the next day. I’ll include parts of that briefing with the summary episode.

This briefing with LtCol Skelton has a little better audio quality than the briefing with Maj Mulhare and it makes a pretty good episode in and of itself. No flies on the briefing with Maj Mulhare – it’s just going to require a little more attention in post. I was holding the MP3 recorder for the briefing with 7, whereas I had the MP3 recorder sitting on the table further away from us for the briefing with 8.

As you’d expect from a squadron with the reputation of the Thunderbirds, the briefings were remarkably similar and that speaks very highly of the team’s standardization of procedures. You’ll be able to tell when you hear the excerpts from Maj Mulhare’s briefing in the final episode.

Stay tuned!

How to Prep for Pulling Nine Gees

This is a regular blog post. Please check out the other posts if you’re looking for show notes or links to show audio.

Although I’m sure that I’ll work this in to the summary episode now in production, this communication bears posting in full.

SSgt Russ Martin is the guy with whom you communicate if you’ve been selected as a primary or alternate flyer with the USAF Thunderbirds. (Don’t inundate or stalk him. He’s not the guy who decides who flies.) He coordinates your suit-up, hands you off to the correct people, and generally makes sure that you have the great experience that the Air Force wants you to have.

I know that the Airspeed audience is particularly interested in the behind-the-scenes stuff that has to do with the actual aviation, and I thought that the text of SSgt Martin’s e-mail to me might be interesting to you. I received this about a week and a half before the flight. It covers the aeromedical factors and the process for the day of the flight and answers a lot of questions that I’d imagine most media riders have.

It’s also the first tangible indication that this experience has a very real chance of happening. It’s the kind of e-mail that makes you just sit there in disbelief that it’s actually there on your screen.

It’s also an excellent example of the Air Force’s media relations culture. It contains all of the necessary information in very clear and professional terms while at the same time being engaging and even witty.

Anyway, enjoy!



Congratulations on being selected as an alternate for a flight with the Thunderbirds. Obviously we would love to fly everyone who is nominated for a flight, but keep in mind that if the primary nominee for the flight on Thursday, July 3, is not able to fly for any reason, you are next in line!

Should that happen, the following instructions would apply…

We will need you to arrive for your flight equipment fitting at the airport by 2:30 p.m. We will meet you [location redacted]. If you need directions, please talk to [name and contact information redacted]. She should be able to point you in the right direction. She is our local Public Relations point of contact.

Please make sure that your cameraman or photographer is with you for complete coverage of your day’s activities. Also, please bring a cotton t-shirt (any color) and a pair of cotton athletic socks that come up to the middle of your calves. Both are for your comfort. We will provide you with the flight suit, harness, helmet, G-suit and all other gear necessary to make your flight as comfortable as possible. All you will wear under your flight suit is your socks, t-shirt and underwear.

The scheduled take off would be at 5:30 p.m. and would last about an hour. Because of weather and air traffic variations, we cannot guarantee an on-time take off and landing.

Your cameraman or photographer will have access to everything during the day with the exception of the few minutes you spend with our flight surgeon. Also, we will have a still photographer there to capture the entire day for you and we will ensure that you receive a CD of digital photos as soon as possible for your personal use.

Some things to keep in mind to make your flight as enjoyable as possible:

Starting 24 hours prior to your flight, hydrate. Drink water until you’re silly and then drink another bottle. Hydration combats motion sickness, so this step is key.

It is not recommended that you go drinking the night before your flight. The alcohol and its after-effects also quickly dehydrate the body and will encourage a feeling of dizziness and nausea that you will want to avoid while flying at speeds approaching the sound barrier!

The day of the flight, unless you can’t live without it, please avoid that morning cup of coffee. Avoid carbonation and caffeine the day of your flight. Both are diuretics and will cancel out all of the work you did for the 24 hours prior getting yourself good and hydrated.

The day of your flight, I want you to have food in your stomach, but nothing greasy and nothing spicy. It’s a good idea to stay away from deep fried breakfast Taquitos! A piece of fruit and a bagel, or a light turkey sandwich would be ideal. The carbs will be good for you and will help to keep your stomach settled that day.

In the meantime, remember that just because you weren’t selected to fly with us this time around doesn’t mean that you never will. The Thunderbirds return routinely to cities such as yours to participate in air shows. You can learn more about the Thunderbirds by visiting us on-line at

Thank you and have a great day!

Staff Sgt. Russ Martin
Chief, Media Relations
USAF Thunderbirds


Guys, SSgt martin is a real pro and very clearly loves what he does. He made the whole experience go smoothly and this e-mail is just one of many artifacts of that process.

Another Cockpit Shot from the Thunderbirds Ride

Tim Reed has been working on some of the pictures he took at the airshow. Here’s a rather good one of me sitting in the cockit just before the Thunderbirds ride. Can’t say what I’m thinking, but it probably runs the entire gamut.