The Air Force is in Whit Collins blood.
The grandson of a World War II pilot, and the son of an Air Force maintenance officer, Collins was born at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia.
“I consider the Air Force a family business,” Collins said.
It was perhaps pre-determined, then, that the 32-year-old Air Force major would become an opposing solo pilot flying the No. 6 jet with the Air Force Thunderbirds.
The acrobatic F-16 fighter jet team zipped through the Miami Valley and landed just ahead of foreboding rain clouds Monday at Dayton International Airport to prepare for this weekend’s Vectren Dayton Air Show.
The air show will launch Saturday and Sunday and the Thunderbirds typically draw 65,000 to 70,000 spectators based on past years attendance figures, said Michael Emoff, air show chairman.
“We’re spoiled in Dayton and we have the luxury of having jet teams pretty much every year except in the odd situations we haven’t,” he said. “…Not having a jet team significantly impacts our attendance unfortunately because we’re so used to having jet teams and a lot of the people who go regionally are used to having a jet team.”
For Collins, it marks his first trip to the Miami Valley, and his first show season with the Thunderbirds, coming directly from flying combat missions in Afghanistan to jet acrobatics in front of thousands across the country.
“I was actually deployed while I got selected to be a Thunderbird so I got to come home straight from flying combat missions to doing air shows which is an interesting transition,” he said.
“It’s definitely different than what I was used to, but we go through a pretty extensive training program from November through March and by the time show season hits we’re just ready to go and on full cylinders.”
As one of two solo pilots among the six jets performing, Collins will pull more than nine times his body weight and fly faster than 650 miles per hour, or just below the speed of sound. That’s more than the four other jets flying in formation for most of the show will experience.
“We’re pulling this thing to the maximum extent possible, so we’re pulling nine Gs, taking it right up to the mach (speed of sound), not over it because that would break windows and make a lot of damage,” he said.
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Pilots wear g-suits that inflate with air to help them avoid passing out, and Collins runs and lift weights to contend with the grueling physical demands of the flying job.
“Really, it’s just on us to keep ourselves physically sound and ready to go and we do a good job of backing each other up so we talk a lot about operational risk management…. We talk about fatigue and how we’re feeling,” he said. “If we weren’t feeling safe to fly that day, we tell the boss and we just fly one less airplane that day, no questions asked because crowd safety is always our No. 1 concern.”
The Thunderbirds normally arrive at a show site on a Thursday, but flew across the state to Dayton from Youngstown, the team’s most recent air show stop, rather than return home for a few days to Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, Nevada.
During their time out of the cockpit in the Dayton region, the Thunderbirds will tour the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, Wright brothers historical sites, and fly aboard a World War II-era B-25 Mitchell bomber, among other stops, he said.
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