The Arkansas Leader (10/12/2005)
By JOHN HOFHEIMER
United States Air Force Thunderbirds pilot Maj. Rusty Keen loves his job and it shows.
“I still can’t believe I get paid for this,” Keen said Thursday, just minutes after performing a series of arrival exercises and landing his F-16 fighter at Little Rock Air Force Base in preparation for the base’s 50th Anniversary air show today and Sunday. “I’m living a dream.”
Flying the F-16 in a show is “an adrenaline rush, like playing in the Super Bowl,” he said.
Keen said he was happy to be in Arkansas to help celebrate the base’s 50th anniversary, mainly in recognition of the local community support.
“It’s an absolute dream, representing all the men and women of the Air Force,” said Keen, an 11-year veteran who has flown about 200 hours of combat missions in Bosnia and Iraq.
Keen and the other members of the Air Force’s precision flying team, based at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, fly 90 shows a year between March and November. This weekend’s show is No. 75.
Next November, Capt. Nicole Malachowski will become the first female Thunderbirds pilot, according to Capt. Angela Johnson, the group’s public affairs spokesman.
Thunderbirds pilots serve two years on the team, with three of the six pilots replaced each year by three new pilots halfway through his first year, Keen said.
Keen, married and the father of two, is away from home 257 days a year, although his family sometimes joins him at shows.
This year, the Thunderbirds will also perform in Guatemala, El Salvador and Acapulco.
He is a graduate of Southwest Texas State University, where he played baseball and was a pole vaulter, he said.
When his two years are up, he will go back to flying F-16s similar to his Thunderbirds plane.
“Put a 20mm gun in place of the (smoking) oil pot and we’re ready to go to war,” he said.
From November through March each year, the pilots begin working on their formations, practicing two or three times a day — “very intensive, long days,” Keen said.
The planes start high and wide, gradually tightening up the formations and flying lower until, by the beginning of the show season, the four planes in the precision formations sometime have wingtips only 18 inches apart at 600 miles per hour, he said.
During the performance season, they leave home every Thursday and do arrival routines at the site of the approaching show.
On Friday they practice the show for Make-A-Wish Founda-tion guests and others and visit schools, hospitals or scouts, and have a briefing.
The shows are on Saturdays and Sundays and the group flies home to Las Vegas on Monday.
They practice again on Tuesdays and take Wednesdays off to take care of business and wash clothes, then hit the rack and get ready to start again.
The pilots have to be in peak condition — they can pull between six and nine Gs during their routines. Keen lifts weights and does aerobic exercises.
“It’s super exciting,” Keen said.