CHEYENNE – The show started with just a glint of silver in the sky and the faint sound of jet engines echoing across the plains.
But within less than a minute, the six F-16 Falcons that make up the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds were racing overhead, drowning out the screams of the thousands of people gathered at F.E. Warren Air Force Base.
For the next 30 minutes or so, the Thunderbirds put on an aerial show of dives, turns and passes that displayed exactly why this group of pilots are considered some of the best in the world.
The show the Thunderbirds put on Wednesday has become one of the annual highlights of Cheyenne Frontier Days, drawing in people from across the Front Range to see the Air Force’s elite aerial demonstration team. Even though the show moved from Laramie County Community College to the base this year, more than 5,000 people were in attendance.
Bill Russell from Douglas, Wyoming, said getting to the venue this year was more complicated than in years past, as he and the other audience members had to be bused from a parking lot to the show’s location. But while getting to the show was more challenging, the show itself was the better for it.
“I’ve seen it quite a few times,” Russell said. “It was better probably this year. I think it’s easier to see over here. There’s no buildings in the way.”
Many of the people who showed up Wednesday at F.E. Warren come every year to see the Thunderbirds. And even with all of those repeat viewings, and knowing every maneuver by heart, the show never gets old.
“I love the Thunderbirds. We watch them every year,” said Walt Wheat from Laramie, Wyoming. “I like it every time. The show’s not different, but I still like it every time.”
Wheat said he grew up near the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and his father was a pilot in the Army. He said there’s just something about seeing the Thunderbirds that continues to draw him to the CFD air show every year.
“(They’re) probably some of the best pilots in the world,” Wheat said. “It’s amazing.”
Noreen and Jim O’Neal traveled about 200 miles from Leadville, Colorado, on Wednesday just to see the Thunderbirds. The couple regularly attend NASCAR races, and only get to see the Thunderbirds and the U.S. Navy Blue Angels make quick flyovers. Both said they really wanted to have a chance to see the pilots show off all they could do in their jet fighters.
“I think it’s a fantasy everyone has (to fly like that),” Jim O’Neal said. “It’s unique. You don’t see this every day.”
Jules Grieve from Greeley, Colorado, made the trip north with her children and her parents. While her dad and mom make the trip almost every year to see the Thunderbirds, this was Grieve’s first show.
Grieve is in the process of training to be a pilot, and she said it brought tears to her eyes to see the Thunderbirds perform. She hoped her own efforts to pursue a pilot’s license would be just as inspiring to her children.
“It was a huge awakening for me of all the possibilities. And it was really beautiful to see the community and camaraderie, and the way the Air Force runs things,” Grieve said. “I want to show my kids they can do whatever calls their heart. Whatever passions are in your heart, just pursue them and follow them as long as they can take you. If they see their mom become the pilot I’ve always wanted to be, then maybe they can follow my example.”
New recruits sworn in
One of the annual events that accompanies the Thunderbirds show is a batch of new Air Force recruits taking their oath of service. This year, 21 recruits raised their right hand and, in front of the thousands gathered, pledged their service to the country.
John Herndon just graduated from Cheyenne’s East High and was one of the recruits who took their oath. It was a major accomplishment for him, made all the better by the fact that it was being given by the best pilots in the country.
“I’m finally getting to serve my country, and it’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” Herndon said. “Being able to get sworn in by the Thunderbirds, and in a week and a half getting sworn in to active-duty Air Force, just makes it that much better.”
Air Force Staff Sgt. Alex Russell took his oath of service five years ago during the CFD Thunderbirds show, and was back in Cheyenne for this year’s performance. Seeing this year’s batch of recruits made him a little emotional as he remembered his own ceremony and subsequent service.
“It’s weird standing here and seeing all the people up there do the same thing I did five years ago. It definitely brings a tear to my eye,” Russell said. “I really think I’ve been able to do a lot of stuff through the Air Force, and I’m so glad I did it. And I hope these guys get the same opportunity.”