USAF Thunderbirds Dazzle Daytona 500 Crowd

USAF Thunderbirds perform starburst display as part of their flyover at Daytona during National Anthem sung by vocalist Jordin Sparks. [Joe Jennings Photo]

USAF Thunderbirds perform starburst display as part of their flyover at Daytona during National Anthem sung by vocalist Jordin Sparks. [Joe Jennings Photo]

By Joe Jennings

DAYTONA BEACH – The USAF Thunderbirds dazzle onlookers wherever they appear. At high-profile spectacles such as the NFL’s Super Bowl and NASCAR’s Daytona 500, the Thunderbirds are invited to do the flyover during the conclusion of the National Anthem. For this year’s Daytona 500, the Thunderbirds are appearing for the eighth time to the delight of the sellout crowd of 104,000.

As celebrity vocalist Jordin Sparks winds down the National Anthem, the six Thunderbird pilots, traveling south to north, will zoom over the Daytona International Speedway at a speed between 350 and 500 miles per hour. Their speed depends on the timing with the Anthem, which is being communicated by the USAF forward observers located high atop the DIS grandstands.

For Sunday’s performance, the Thunderbirds added a twist to their flyover. Instead of an outright flyover in formation, they performed a burst maneuver as they went over the grandstands, all to the amazement of the packed grandstands.

Even though the flyover is run off quickly, it takes some 60 Air Force staffers to make it happen, which includes eight F-16s and their pilots. Six F-16s participate in the flyover and two others come in early to visit schools and other groups, plus they take notables on demonstration flights.

Three of the notables getting the ride of their lives were racers Ryan Blaney and Erik Jones along with songstress Sparks. Each flight consumes about 45 minutes and includes high-speed loops and acrobatics to the delight of the guests. To the person, they deem the flights as the ride of their lives.

Said Sparks about her flight, “It was incredible; one of the best things I have ever done. I got up to 9G’s and it was one of the best experiences of my life. It was amazing to be up there, and I feel honored to be included. And I managed to keep everything down, too.”

Led by Lt. Col. Jason Heard, the Thunderbirds traveled from their Nellis Air Force Base (Nevada) home in four hours to include mid-air refueling three times.

Flying in formation next to the commander is Major Ryan Bodenheimer. The Colorado native has been in the Air Force for 11 years, including nearly two years with the Thunderbirds. Coming from a military family, the articulate pilot didn’t grow up planning to fly, only getting the bug at age 15 while watching flight operations in Alaska. “It sparked my heart and I realized my passion for flying was in there,” he commented. “And then 9/11 happened, and it revitalized my passion for aviation and combined it with service for my country.”

A friend suggested he pursue a Thunderbird assignment, which he did and when he realized the mission of the Thunderbirds is to inspire people, he was sold. “When I realized I could have the opportunity to make the world for the better, I am blessed that it has worked out.”

One of his inspirations comes from working with children and showing them that with hard work they can succeed. And succeed the pilot has done.

While not a diehard race fan, he pulls for Danica Patrick, believing in her ability to break barriers, her competitive spirit and her intense desire to win. These traits and others seem to parallel the competitive nature of the Thunderbird community. And Bodenheimer would love to meet Patrick and take her for a demonstration flight in his F-16.

Whether the Thunderbirds return in 2018 is unknown, everyone will be disappointed if they do not come back.

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