EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- An F-16 operational test and evaluation pilot here was selected to fly with the 2017 Thunderbirds, the Air Force’s aerial demonstration team.
Capt. Whit Collins, 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron flight commander, will assume the role of Thunderbird pilot number 6, the opposing “solo.”
The 31-year-old Airman was in Afghanistan supporting Operation FREEDOM’S SENTINEL AND RESOLUTE SUPPORT when he received the good news.
“The Thunderbird team announcement was taking longer than anticipated. Every day my peers asked if I heard any news,” said the Citadel graduate. “Finally, one morning I awoke to email messages from Thunderbird No. 1 and my Eglin squadron commander with no details, other than to call back when I had a moment.”
Lt. Col. Adam Smith, 85th TES Commander, delivered the news when Collins returned his call. At first, he was in disbelief, but then almost immediately overcome by excitement.
“The eight-year-old version of me was going crazy. Come to think of it, the grown-up version of me was going crazy too,” said the Warner Robins, Georgia native. “I immediately called my wife, Eileen, to share the good news!”
Smith thinks the Thunderbirds team chose wisely by selecting Collins.
“The Thunderbirds got it right,” said Smith. “I’m certain he’ll be a terrific asset to the Thunderbirds. He’s an excellent role model, humble and approachable.”
Collins’ love for the Air Force comes from his lineage and life experience. His grandfather flew the B-25 during World War II and continued as an aviator until after Vietnam. His father was a maintenance officer. But, it was during his high school years at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada when he realized he wanted to join the Air Force.
“I remember looking up at the sky to watch the fighters and the Thunderbirds in the pattern, and thinking to myself, ‘How awesome it would be to fly,’” he said.
The 10 year veteran said he wanted to join the Thunderbirds for the opportunity to make a difference and to inspire the next generation of Airmen.
“I met a Thunderbird at an airshow in 1994. He told me I could be a fighter pilot if I wanted to,” said the test pilot. “Those words, which I’m sure he told to thousands of kids that year, made an impression on me and drove the pursuit of my dream to fly the F-16. Now, I have the opportunity to pay it forward to the next generation.”