The Air Force Thunderbirds Air Demonstration Team performed precision flying maneuvers over Hickam Air Force Base yesterday as part of the base's Friends and Neighbors Weekend. The team's routines included tight side-by-side formations in diamond shapes, vertical spirals and inverted dives.

sonic zoom

Thunderbirds thrill isle
spectators with aerial stunts

Ex-isle residents aid team

The Air Force Thunderbirds tore across the sky over Hickam Air Force Base yesterday, performing vertical spirals, side-by side spins and inverted dives for an estimated 45,000 spectators.

The Thunderbirds are in town for the first time since 1997.

Spectators craned their necks as they watched the six F-16 Fighting Falcon jets execute difficult, high-speed aerial maneuvers.

One maneuver incorporated precision and height when one of the jets spiraled straight up for three miles.

Other tricks included tight side-by-side formations in diamond and arrowhead shapes, with only 18 inches between the wing tips of each plane.

According to Carey Yamaguchi, a Waipahu High School graduate and an engineer mechanic for the Thunderbirds, the most complicated maneuver came toward the end of the half-hour show when four jets flying in a diamond formation broke away in different directions, then flew back toward each other to meet again at the exact same spot and time.

Many of the Thunderbirds' routines yesterday incorporated inverted dives that impressed spectators.

They have to communicate well, he said: "The trick is for them to find each other."

"You have to know where everyone is at the same time, so when they get to the center, they don't collide," he said.

Ten-year-old Steven Washam was not afraid of the jets colliding during the half-hour show.

"I thought they might hit, but I wasn't scared for them because they seem to know what they were doing," he said.

Ed Yee tried to capture the tricks on camera, but he was unable to get good shots because of the crowd and the speed of the jets, he said.

"It's tough shooting. Just when you think you got a good shot, you run into a head," he said.

The crowd didn't bother 13-year-old Bryce Shinagawa, who is a fan of the Thunderbirds and has seen them several times before.

Shinagawa said he loves watching the jets, but he'd rather watch from the crowd.

"I'd go up in a jet, but I'd hate that feeling of falling," he said.

Other children agree. Nine-year-old Angelica Buchanan said, "I'm scared of heights. And I'm scared of going upside down cause I'd feel like I'd fall down to the ground."

For some, the excitement of the Thunderbirds' performances has not died with age.

Greg Wong's father used to take him to watch the demonstration squadron shows.

And yesterday, Wong brought his two sons to the show and plans to return to the base today for the second Thunderbirds demonstration.

Watching the Thunderbirds has become a tradition in the Wong family, and, according to Wong's wife, as she pointed to her husband and sons, "They'll be back."

Staff Sgts. Marisa Tui, left, and Carey Yamaguchi examined one of the Thunderbird F-16s after the stunt planes arrived last week at Hickam Air Force Base.

2 former isle residents
ensure elite aerial
team is fit for flight

Ten years ago, Carey Yamaguchi found himself at "a dead end, going from job to job and not doing anything very productive."

"I saw some of my friends getting on the wrong track," said the 1990 Waipahu High School graduate, "and I didn't want to end up sitting under the same tree everyday, drinking beer and telling the same stories."

Instead, Yamaguchi, 30, decided to follow the footsteps of his brother, Derek Jimenez, and enlisted in the Air Force, ending up as a jet mechanic with the service's elite aerial demonstration team, the Thunderbirds.

This weekend Yamaguchi, now an Air Force staff sergeant, and the 60 other maintenance crew members are at Hickam Air Force Base to ensure that the 30-minute aerial demonstration lives up to its hype.

Staff Sgt. Marisa Tui, a 1995 Konawaena High School graduate, said it was tough at first to get accustomed to the rigid discipline and commitment that is demanded of all team members.

"You can't slack off," said Tui, who has been with the Thunderbirds for 1 1/2 years. "But this is also an awesome crew. Everyone here wants to be here. They want to work and they want to learn. They don't only do what they are assigned to do. They go of their way to learn other jobs."

Tui, 25, enlisted in the Air Force right after graduation and was motivated like many island high school seniors because "I wanted to leave the rock."

Her job is inspecting the eight red, white and blue F-16 jet fighters used by the Thunderbirds for signs of metal fatigue or stress as well as test the oils used by the jets for defects.

"This is an experience you can't beat," said the Kona native, noting the Thunderbirds are on the road an average of 260 days a year.

She expects to only miss three of the 80 aerial shows planned for Canada and mainland U.S. audiences over the next three months.

Yamaguchi said he went through the rigid screening and training process that entitles him to wear the dark blue Air Force utility uniform embossed with the large Thunderbird patch "because the Air Force has been good to me."

"I want to serve my country and be able to give something back," said Yamaguchi. "And it never gets boring. I've been to 27 different countries so far. It's been fun and you get to meet new people, something that you don't always have the opportunity to do in other jobs."

His goal now is to become a member of the "show line crew," which must make all the trips. "There are 21 spots, with at least two people assigned to each of the eight jets," he added.

That would be the high point of his three-year assignment with the Thunderbirds.

Both Tui and Yamaguchi plan to take leave here to spend time with family members.

Yamaguchi expects to be back on the road by the end of the month for three weeks of shows in Ontario, Atlantic City, Quebec and Atlanta.

The Thunderbirds' visit, the first since 1997, is midway through its current demonstration season, which runs from March to November. The winter months are used to train new pilots.

Officers serve a two-year assignment with the squadron, while the enlisted corps serves three to four. Nearly a third of all personnel are replaced each year, providing a constant mix of experience levels.

The Air Force says that since the unit was created in 1953, more than 315 million people in all 50 states and 60 foreign countries have witnessed the red, white, and blue jets in more than 3,500 aerial demonstrations.

The Thunderbirds have flown F-16 Fighting Falcons since 1983. In the past, T-38 Talons, the world's first supersonic aircraft; F-4 Phantoms; F-100 Super Sabres; and F-84G Thunderjets and F-84F Thunderstreaks were used.


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