How to Ride With the Air Force Thunderbirds

By Contributor

You've seen them streak across the sky at air shows, or caught the footage from a cockpit camera, and you think you'd like to take a ride with the Thunderbirds. The US Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron (USAFADS), as the Thunderbirds are more properly known, was formed to make people yearn to soar into the "wild, blue yonder"-and your dream can come true if you meet the strict requirements.

Be where the Thunderbirds are. To ride with the Thunderbirds, you'll need to find one of the air shows at which they're scheduled to appear. The USAFADS travels around the country during the air show season, which lasts from March through November. Check out the yearly schedule at the Thunderbirds website to find an air show appearance near you, or one you can travel to.

Work in local media or be a celebrity. The Thunderbirds' air show appearances are designed to serve as an Air Force recruiting tool. At every air show, a few rides are open to members of the media, who can use the power of the airwaves or the press to get the recruiting message out. In the same way, young sports and entertainment celebrities who serve as good role models are often invited to ride with the Thunderbirds, or given the privilege of riding if they make their wishes known.

Meet the size and age qualifications. Even if you're a local media hotshot or a Heisman Trophy hopeful, Air Force standards for a grueling Thunderbirds ride in tight quarters mean you can't be taller than 6 feet 5 inches or older than 55, must weigh between 110 and 220 lbs. and have a chest size between 34 and 48 inches and can't have a waist larger than 38 inches. Even your shoe size matters; it has to fall between a man's size 5 and 12.

Provide all the right supporting documentation. If you're applying for a media ride you'll have to submit a completed request form, answer a detailed medical questionnaire, provide proof of a recent medical exam (at your expense) certifying your good health and write a one-page letter explaining how your ride-along coverage will advance the Thunderbirds' recruiting mission. The local air show media affairs officer will be your point of contact, and may require additional application materials. Celebrity riders are usually contacted directly by the Thunderbirds media office with an invitation.

Take a virtual ride with the Thunderbirds if you don't fit the very narrow qualifications for a real ride-along. There are great video clips at the official Thunderbirds website and even on YouTube. You can order the 2007 documentary "America's Team: Being a US Air Force Thunderbird," produced to honor the 50th anniversary of the USAFADS, on DVD.

Tip

Get your application materials in early if you're trying for a media ride. Opportunities are very limited, and the competition is fierce. Contact the Thunderbirds directly if you have questions about a celebrity invitation or other opportunities. Write to USAFADS, 4445 Tyndall Ave., Nellis AFB, NV 89191. Fax (702) 662-6367 or email usaf.thunderbirds@nellis.af.mil.

Warning

You can't ride with the Thunderbirds if you're pregnant or have any illness or medical condition. Even seemingly minor complaints can be a danger in the high-stress environment of the jets.