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Military show: She'll fly with Thunderbirds

Maj. Caroline Jensen stands in front of an F-16 airplane that has been painted with the Thunderbirds' colors. The plane is just like the one Jensen will fly when she starts performing with the Thunderbirds in spring of 2012. <i>Submitted photo</i>

A River Falls woman has been chosen to be an ambassador, but not the kind with a tiara.

Maj. Caroline Jensen of the United States Air Force was recently chosen to become a member of the "Ambassadors in Blue" with the USAF Thunderbirds for the 2012 demonstration season.

Jensen, daughter of Gayle and Larry Westrum of River Falls, said she saw a Thunderbirds airshow in 1991, which influenced her decision to join the Air Force.

"Ever since I was a little kid I wanted to be in the Air Force and the Thunderbirds were a big part of that," said Jensen.

Jensen graduated from River Falls High School in 1994 and went on to the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.

The Thunderbirds fly over the Air Force Academy graduation each year as the graduates toss their hats into the air. Jensen said this was a huge moment for her.

But it wasn't Jensen's plan to join the Thunderbirds all along, because she didn't know she could.

"Actually I'm a little bit of an unusual person for the Thunderbirds because I'm a Reservist," said Jensen.

Jensen is an instructor pilot from the 97th Training Flying Squadron. She is a part of the Air Force Reserves, rather than on active duty.

The first Reservist joined the Thunderbirds three years ago. So Jensen thought she wouldn't be able to join the flying group. Jensen said when she found out they had a Reservist Thunderbird, she applied right away.

The application process was long and difficult. Jensen needed five letters of recommendation, and wrote a letter explaining why she wanted to be a part of the Thunderbirds.

Jensen also needed to send documentation to show she had had the required 1,000 hours of flying a fighter typed aircraft.

Thirty-six people applied to join the Thunderbirds this year. Thirteen applicants were chosen as semifinalists and went to Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida to interview.

From there, the semifinalists were narrowed to six finalists, and after further interviews, Jensen and two other pilots were chosen.

Jensen said even the application process to join the Thunderbirds took a lot of travel, first traveling to Tyndall in Florida then to Beale Air Force Base in California and Nellis Air Force Base in Texas.

Jensen said finding out she had gotten into the Thunderbirds was exciting news. The Thunderbirds were a huge part of her career, Jensen said, and she hopes to influence other careers the same way.

"Just to meet those kids and see that sparkle in their eyes and to know that I might have started someone else's Air Force career," Jensen said.

The Thunderbirds are now based at Nellis Air Force Base, but when the unit was first created, it was at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. According to the United Sates Air Force Thunderbirds website, the name Thunderbirds is in reference to the Native American legend of a giant bird that made thunder from its wings, and shot lightning from its eyes.

The Thunderbirds fly slightly modified F-16 jets. The cannons are removed and replaced with smoke machines, and they are painted red, white and blue.

But, should they be needed, the Thunderbirds can be used in combat after relatively quick modification.

There are around 700,000 people, military and civilian, that work hard in the USAF every day Jensen said.

"What the Thunderbirds do is put that on display," said Jensen.

But being a Thunderbird pilot can be dangerous. There have been several accidents with the Thunderbirds, some leading to deaths.

While Jensen said the accidents were "absolutely unfortunate" she said she isn't worried.

"If you look at aviation in general, everything you do in life, there's accidents involved," said Jensen.

Jensen flew 200 hours in Korea and Iraq. She also has 650 hours of experience flying an F-16, the plane that the Thunderbirds use. Jensen said this will help her as she trains.

Jensen's training will be at Luke Air Force Base. She needs to re-qualify to fly an F-16, and then train twice a day with it, learning to safely fly in the tight formations the Thunderbirds use.

She should be ready for her first show by March 2012.

While the Jensen is looking forward to getting to travel to new places with the Thunderbirds, the place she said she most hopes to perform is home.

For more information about the USAF Thunderbirds visit

Gretta Stark

Gretta Stark has been a reporter for the River Falls Journal since July of 2013. She previously worked as a reporter for the New Richmond News from June 2012 to July 2013. She holds a BA in Print and Electronic Media from Wartburg College.

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