Thunderbirds return to Lakeland with a brand new routine | Florida News

By SARA-MEGAN WALSH, The Big Book

LAKELAND, Fla. (AP) — The rumble filled the sky as the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds arrived at Lakeland Linder International Airport Monday afternoon to a handful of curious onlookers.

The Thunderbirds will perform their new choreographed show at the 2022 Sun ‘n Fun Aerospace Expo Friday through Sunday afternoon. Spectators can get a first look at their F-16 Fighting Falcons in formation during their Thursday training session. This will be the first time the team has performed demonstrations at Sun ‘n Fun since 2016.

Lt. Col. Justin Elliot, Commanding Officer of the Thunderbirds, promised something new to annual attendees.

“What you’re going to see here this weekend is a show that was built to be a show, it’s no longer a series of demonstrative maneuvers to show an explosive thing followed by a long break,” Elliott said. “What you’re going to see is an approach to building chained maneuvers that are meant to actually move you.”

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When COVID canceled air shows across the country in 2020, Elliott said the Thunderbirds used the downtime to rewrite the entire performance from scratch.

“There are points where we intentionally try to tug on your emotions a bit and make you think about something bigger than yourself,” Elliott said.

Orlando native Major Zane Taylor, 34, will fly No. 4 aircraft for the Thunderbirds. His dream of becoming a pilot started here.

“Sun ‘n Fun is what sparked my interest in aviation, so it’s super cool to be back here and flying in the show,” Taylor said.

He still remembers seeing the Thunderbirds perform at the expo as a child. Now Taylor is flying in location position, directly behind the “boss”, or squadron leader. He must be ready to take over and fill any of the other roles if one of the pilots suddenly has a problem with his plane.

As a former Air Force flight instructor, Taylor told The Ledger that many maneuvers in Thunderbirds performance can serve a practical purpose.

“A lot of the maneuvers that you see in the show are things that we did look really nice for the crowds,” he said. “A rollover in the F-16 is how you avoid getting shot.”

It’s the added precision of flying in close formations that makes maneuvers much more difficult to perform and creates stunning visuals.

“A lot of it is aerobatics,” Taylor said. “What we try to demonstrate is teamwork, excellence and precision.”

For Major Lauren “Threat” Schlichting, 32, who flies the No. 3 jet on the right wing, this is her rookie season with the Thunderbirds. Lakeland will be his third air show with the team.

Schlichting is the only female pilot in the current Thunderbirds lineup. She remembers being inspired when astronauts visited her school when she was 8 in her hometown of Stillwater, Minnesota.

“The fact that they revealed they were fighter pilots and I came home saying I wanted to be a fighter pilot,” she said. “My mom said, ‘Lauren, I don’t even know how you know those words.'”

Schlichting said leaving his job as a flight instructor to join the Thunderbirds gives him the opportunity to travel a lot, meet more people and share his story to inspire others.

“If I can give someone a dream – not necessarily to be a fighter pilot – but inspire them to pursue their dreams, that would mean the world to me,” she said.

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