Thunderbird commander reminds graduated pilots teamwork is critical

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Keith Holcomb
  • 14th Flying Training Wing Public Affairs
Lt. Col. Kevin Walsh, U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron commander/leader, spoke at Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training Class’s 19-04/05 graduation Jan. 25, in the Kaye Auditorium.

Walsh, who graduated pilot training at Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi, in 2003, told three stories about the importance of connection in today’s Air Force.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein spoke to the Thunderbird team one year and asked the team if they saw their job as just another job or as a calling.

“It got the team thinking,” Walsh said. “If you were working for the airlines and your spouse got sick, would anyone call to see how she’s doing? If you have a family emergency would anyone from the airlines watch your dog? In the military, they would.”

He explained how the military pilot community is connected and how the Air Force cultivates the family connection between all Airmen through the wingman concept.

Walsh began his next story setting the scene. It was his third combat deployment down range and he said it felt pretty comfortable since he was a recent weapons school graduate. He explained how his team headed to help some Marines who were being ambushed.

Walsh and his wingmen worked with an AH-64 Apache, reconnaissance aircraft and the team on the ground to help eliminate the threats.

“It was a complete team effort across different services,” Walsh said. “Fast forward later in Afghanistan … a combat outpost was being overrun … so we launched our fleet to help the guys and gals on the ground. There were all sorts of unmanned aerial vehicles, A-10 (Thunderbolt IIs), F-15 (Strike Eagles), everyone was there.”

He described the intense weather conditions in the mountains, the team on the ground was yelling over the radio for various forms of assistance, and how the firing didn’t stop until a B-1 Lancer made two passes across the terrain.

“Some of our guys had been hit, our helicopters couldn’t make a landing because of the weather,” Walsh said, “then a female voice comes on the radio flying a C-130 Hercules, and I thought ‘What on earth is a C-130 doing here.’”

Walsh explained how he witnessed the C-130 land in the dirt, grab all the people and equipment then proceeded to bring everything back to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan.

“It was an unbelievable show of teamwork,” Walsh said.

Following the mission, he volunteered to help in the hospital and saw the ground team he had just helped save. Across the same hospital room, they saw some enemies who’d been injured as well. The Air Force was providing medical care for everyone.

Walsh began to talk about the last example of connection in his career. He explained the finale of the Thunderbirds routine and how Thunderbird 4’s maneuver works.

“Unfortunately No. 4 starts his ‘split S’ and did not pull out of the maneuver and we lost No. 4 that day,” Walsh said. “It was the most alone I had ever felt in my career. I let the team fly home and I stayed overhead as long as I could.”

Later when setting up the memorial, a C-17 Globemaster III brought over 100 people from across the world to celebrate Maj. Stephen Del Bagno, the fallen Thunderbird pilot. Fighters, refueling aircraft and cargo aircraft crews made the trip as well.

“This is the kind of environment you have entered,” Walsh said. “It’s not a club, it’s a family, a family you earned your way into, a family people have sacrificed for, it’s a family that people aspire to be in.”

He tied together the three stories and explained how the connection to this family stretches outside uniforms and into communities. Walsh mentioned the impact everyone feels when lives are saved down range and the impact felt when Airmen pay the ultimate price. He reminded the students through everything they will always have a connected family around them.

He then left the graduates with words of advice and a congratulations.

“Stay hungry, this is but the beginning,” Walsh said. “You are going to do amazing things before you know it and from a squadron commander’s perspective, we just want to see motivation to improve yourself and your wingman. If you have that, we will take care of the rest.”