MOODY AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. --
Military aviators are called upon to serve in a variety of ways.
A-10C Thunderbolt II pilots provide close air support and a security service to troops in contact, a mission with an immediate tangible outcome for those in need on the battlefield.
On the opposite end of the globe – another set of pilots focus on a completely different mission: performing tight aerial maneuvers and wowing a crowd of spectators. This mission exhibits the capabilities of modern high-performance aircraft and the high degree of professionalism required to operate the F-16C/D Fighting Falcon.
One A-10 pilot from Moody’s 75th Fighter Squadron prepares to make the transition from saving lives in combat to showcasing the world’s greatest Air Force. U.S. Air Force Capt. Erik “Speedy” Gonsalves, was recently selected for the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron and will begin his F-16 conversion course July 29.
“I’m going to miss the A-10, the community, the maintainers, but mostly the service mindset of the community,” said Gonsalves, who has flown A-10s since 2010. “Leaving the A-10 is going to be bittersweet but I am really excited about the Thunderbird mission and what those guys do.
I’m passionate about military aviation and service,” Gonsalves added. “I won’t be serving the ground commander and our troops on the ground in Afghanistan, but instead I will be performing a different type of service. The Thunderbird’s high visibility mission showcases the capabilities and various missions of the Air Force to communities who don’t necessarily interact with Airmen on a daily basis. I’m really looking forward to this new type of service.”
After an eight month application process, seeing his name on the selection list came as a bit of a shock to the 2008 U.S. Air Force Academy graduate.
“I was in shock to finally see my name on the list,” said Gonsalves. “I just couldn’t believe it. I was so excited and happy that I was selected. Given the people and the caliber of the applicants, to be selected is a very humbling experience.”
Earning the title of Thunderbird was never a goal for Gonsalves, but two years ago, his commander recognized how he embodied the Air Force’s core value ‘Service Before Self’ and encouraged him to apply.
Unsure of how competitive he would be, Gonsalves took his commander’s advice and put in an application.
“I didn’t even really know what they did, other than performing airshows,” said Gonsalves. “There’s definitely some guys who, at six years old, saw the Thunderbirds perform and that’s all they wanted to do from then on. I went to airshows as a kid, I think I saw the Blue Angels once, but it was never something that I thought I would want to do or would be qualified to do.”
Like many others who wear the Thunderbird uniform, Gonsalves did not get selected the first time around, but he did earn a new found respect for the team’s mission.
“I was fortunate enough to get selected as a semi-finalist two years ago,” Gonsalves added. “When I got there for the semi-finals, I saw how much those guys and gals on the team actually do aside from just the demo. That’s what really drew me into the team. When I didn’t get selected for last year’s team, I knew without a doubt I was going to reapply.”
With a newfound determination to make the team he began focusing on career progression and his upcoming deployment in support of Operation Inherent Resolve.
“I was disappointed initially, but honestly it’s kind of a blessing in disguise,” said Gonsalves. “I was able to deploy with the 75th Fighter Squadron to OIR, which was kind of the capstone of my career so far.”
Gonsalves credits the deployment as time he needed to mature as a pilot, instructor pilot and develop as a leader and an officer. Skills he believes solidified his selection to the 2017 team.
“I believe the success of our recent combat deployment played a part in his selection,” said Chief Master Sgt. Jason Hughes, 23d Aircraft Maintenance Squadron superintendent. “However, his first class qualities as a pilot, leader and Airman are what gave him the edge to be selected.”
“During our time together, I watched him grow tremendously as a leader of Airmen with every challenge he tackled,” Hughes added. “In my opinion, the qualities that were instrumental in his selection are humility, honestly, confidence, enthusiasm and actionable leadership. He's the perfect choice to represent our Air Force, because he blends all those qualities perfectly.”
As Thunderbird No. 8, he will narrate all performances, serve as the advance pilot and take select media and celebrities on incentive flights.
“I think that Speedy's ability to instruct and communicate were the most instrumental in his selection,” said Lt. Col. Redfern, 75th FS commander. “Of those two characteristics, I think Speedy's ability to communicate to anybody was the single biggest factor in his being selected.”
“Speedy's natural enthusiasm combined with the aforementioned ability to communicate, will be why he excels in his job,” Redfern added. “He will be able to communicate the Air Force's message, be able to get people excited about our Air Force, hopefully recruit the next generation of pilots and get them dreaming about the prospect of a career in aviation.”
Before he begins inspiring the world’s future aviators, Gonsalves must complete his two-month conversion course to learn the basics of the F-16 and attend another five months of Thunderbird specific proficiency training.
I’m looking forward to the challenge of a new aircraft,” said Gonsalves. “The basic aviation principles are the same, regardless of what airframe you’re flying. I won’t get to explore all the capabilities the F-16 has in terms of tactical employment but the pure power and the sleekness of the jet is what I’m looking forward to the most.
“I’m really excited for my first takeoff with that much thrust.”