Thunderbird pilot Maj. Whit Collins in front of his F-16 after arriving at the Abbotsford Airshow on Aug. 8. Collins trained for eight years as a fighter pilot before becoming a member of the Thunderbirds.

Q&A with a U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds pilot

The Thunderbirds will be putting on multiple demos at the Abbotsford Airshow this weekend

Interview with Thunderbirds pilot Maj. Whit Collins, Aug. 8, 2019.

Q: What’s it like training to become a Thunderbird pilot? Similar to the movie Top Gun?

A: Some yes, most no. What I will tell people is flying to me is the ultimate freedom.

I don’t know if you saw us when we were coming in but the weather was kind of scattered and was a lot more broken than it is right now. Normally, you’d have to go way out two miles left and come right in and we were just fighting the clouds. This jet is so maneuverable we were able to get down below the clouds do a really tight spin and land. That would have taken most airplanes like five minutes for the approach.

The training is a lot of fun, it’s a lot of work, but you do just a little bit at a time. So one thing I like to tell people that think they might want to become a pilot is: if you look at these jets they are very intimidating, they are very fast, they pull a lot of G’s, but no one starts out flying those. You start out flying [Snowbirds], that’s what I started flying, and then you kind of work your way up. The air force trained me in such a way that I always felt ready for the next step. I never felt like I was getting in over my head, I felt prepared and ready to go.

Q:How long did it take?

A: So to become a Thunderbird you have to have 750 hours of flying fighters, so that could take somewhere between seven and 10 years. So for me it was about eight years.

And to take that experienced fighter pilot from the air force and train them to become a Thunderbird, we have a training season that runs from November to March. So just a couple months right there for applying training every day, twice a day, for that whole time. We probably fly about four or five times more than your average air force pilot.

We do the same repeatable things. It’s kind of like a sport. You develop muscle memory just trying to perfect that one task you’re working on.

Q: What do you think of the F-16?

A: I’m partial to it because I’ve been flying the F-16 my entire career. You don’t necessarily have to be an F-16 pilot to become a Thunderbird, we take people from any fighter aircraft that’s out there. But it’s a superb machine: it goes twice the speed of sound, pulls nine G’s, if you look at the canopy its one solid piece of transparency with no metal to obstruct your vision.

Are the Thunderbirds a tight-knit group of pilots?

It is, yeah. We call ourselves a family, the whole squad. The whole team is only about 160 people big. The officers, the pilots, you know, we fly with each other at the same time, every time. So most of the [pilots] you see out here working on the show-line are the ones that travel to every show-site. It has to be tight-knit because we’re around each other more than our own families.

RELATED: Abbotsford Airshow features Snowbirds, Thunderbirds and more

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Child falls down Bridal Veil Falls near Chilliwack, crews on scene

An 11-year-old boy fell over the falls about 25 to 30 feet and has suffered a head injury

Abbotsford Hospice Society holds community scavenger hunt

Road to Gratitude event takes place on Sunday, July 19 by the carload

New book celebrates people and events that shaped Abbotsford

Pre-sales launched for Abbotsford – A Diverse Tapestry, to be released in fall

Once-in-a-lifetime comet photographed soaring over Abbotsford

Photographer Randy Small captures Comet NEOWISE in early-morning sky

Man shot dead in east Abbotsford suburbs

Integrated Homicide Investigative Team called to investigate

Woman sexually assaulted, robbed near Surrey SkyTrain station: RCMP

Police say the incident happened July 10, just after 11 p.m. near King George SkyTrain station

B.C. Ferries increasing passenger capacity after COVID-19 restrictions

Transport Canada 50-per-cent limit being phased out, no current plans to provide masks

Four-vehicle collision snarls eastbound highway traffic in Fraser Valley

Collision west of Lickman Road on Highway 1 includes three vehicles plus motorcycle

Amber Alert for two Quebec girls cancelled after bodies found

Romy Carpentier, 6, Norah Carpentier, 11, and their father, Martin Carpentier, missing since Wednesday

Bringing support to Indigenous students and communities, while fulfilling a dream

Mitacs is a nonprofit organization that operates research and training programs

B.C. man prepares to be first to receive double-hand transplant in Canada

After the surgery, transplant patients face a long recovery

Grocers appear before MPs to explain decision to cut pandemic pay

Executives from three of Canada’s largest grocery chains have defended their decision to end temporary wage increases

RCMP ‘disappointed’ by talk that race a factor in quiet Rideau Hall arrest

Corey Hurren, who is from Manitoba, is facing 22 charges

Most Read