From Thunderbird to Thunderbolt
By Airman 1st Class Mercedee Schwartz, 124th Fighter Wing
/ Published October 14, 2017
GOWEN FIELD, Idaho --
People throughout the Treasure Valley fixed their eyes into the sky as a group of F-16 Fighting Falcons boomed across the valley showing off their skill and making noise to let the community know that the United States Air Force Thunderbirds were here for the Gowen Thunder Open House and Airshow.
The Thunderbirds are the aerial jet team for the Air Force and it was the Gowen Thunder planning committee’s primary goal to get them here, said Lt. Col. Ron Hedges, 124th Fighter Wing chief of safety and airshow coordinator for Gowen Thunder.
“We lucked out when they had a cancellation and were able to come to the show,” said Hedges.
It was a huge sigh of relief for Lt. Col. J.R. Williams, the 124th Operations Support Squadron commander, when it was officially announced that the Thunderbirds were coming to perform at the airshow.
After more than 20 years without hosting an airshow at Gowen Field, Williams, who had the unique experience of previously being a Thunderbird pilot, gave the Gowen Thunder planning committee an inside view of the Thunderbirds operations.
The relationships that Williams generated over the years with the airshow industry contributed to the planning and success of the airshow, said Hedges.
He said Williams was able to make recommendations about who the right people would be to bring to the airshow to make it a show that performers would want to come to.
“The Thunderbirds thought that the way that the airshow went that we had been hosting an airshow annually for the past 20 years,” said Hedges
He also said that the Thunderbirds listed Gowen Field as one of the top show places that they had during the entire year.
“It was truly incredible seeing the wing come together for such an amazing event,” said Williams.
He said he was able to watch the Thunderbirds performance at Gowen Thunder with his daughter on his lap and talk to her about his experience flying with the team.
“That was the best part, explaining what dad use to do,” said Williams. “Once you’ve been a part of that team, you can’t see it and not miss it.”
Williams said that his experience with the Thunderbirds was really challenging but also rewarding. Learning to fly the F-16 to the edge of its performance limits on a regular basis was especially challenging.
“There is only one place you learn to fly like that, and that is as a Thunderbird,” said Williams. “No one else flies like that. It was about 100 training sorties over a course of three months before I was allowed to do that in public.”
The Thunderbirds travel all around the world and it’s a humbling experience seeing how other countries view the military, said Williams. He described how rewarding it was to be one of the people who represented the Air Force and being able to show people what we can do.
Every week a pilot would go to a high school, community college or hospital and connect with people on a local level, said Williams.
“It was always a good experience, it made it okay to be gone 200 days a year, it made it okay to be out on the road six days a week,” said Williams.
After his time with the Thunderbirds, Williams left active duty to join the Idaho Air National Guard. This was a decision based on maximizing time with family, he said.
Williams is now an accomplished A-10 Thunderbolt II pilot with the 190th Fighter Squadron and has more than 2,900 military flying hours.
“I get to come out here and work everyday,” said Williams. “I’m so proud to be here and be part of the IDANG.”