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Why The USAF Thunderbirds Still Use A Mechanical Stopwatch In The Cockpit

Why The USAF Thunderbirds Still Use A Mechanical Stopwatch In The Cockpit

Major Michelle Curran has experienced the beginning up sequence of the F-16 Fighting Falcon a great many occasions. She has over 1,500 hours on the airframe, with 163 of those logged as combat hours during Operation Resolute Support and Operation Freedom’s Sentinel in Afghanistan. 

The F-16 is officially assigned the “Battling Falcon,” however many know it by its colloquial name, the “Snake.” Note the air pocket canopy that offers unmatched perceivability. Curran was elevated from Captain to Major since this photograph was taken.  

Now, as Thunderbird no. 5, the lead solo pilot of the United States Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, there’s an extra advance associated with the beginning up sequence. Before she takes off, she ends up a mechanical stopwatch that sits in a metal bracket screwed into the left half of the glare shield on her F-16 Fighting Falcon.

Maj. Curran limps along a “precious stone development.” The stopwatch is mounted to the glare shield to one side of the HUD. 

Visually, the stopwatch, a Marathon , mixes in with the remainder of the instrumentation. It sits directly over the Radar Warning Receiver and to one side of the HUD (Heads Up Display) in the cockpit. It even appears as though it might have moved off the mechanical production system at the Lockheed Martin factory that way. Be that as it may, it is, in fact, a modification exceptional to the Thunderbird solo pilots.

The Thunderbirds flight showing group is comprised of six pilots, most with combat experience, who specialize in various sorts of flying. Every one of the six pilots are profoundly talented at flying in close, graceful developments. When flying in the standard “delta development,” they’re under three feet from each other. During a standard show normal, two pilots will sever from the arrangement, leaving the other four aircraft in a “precious stone development.” Those two pilots are the assigned “solo pilots,” and Maj. Curran is the lead solo pilot.

I had the chance to address Maj. Curran a week ago about the crucial timekeeping strategies that permit Thunderbird pilots to execute their routine securely and with incredible precision. In a typical show, the performance pilots travel at 450 bunches (that is a ground speed of 517 mph) approximately 200 feet over the ground; of course, fractions of a second can have a significant effect. Also, Maj. Curran depends on a humble mechanical stopwatch, in light of technology that basically dates to 1755, when Thomas Mudge introduced the switch escapement to the world. Alongside the most advanced flight frameworks and cutting edge materials, an anachronistic technology plays similarly as significant of a job in executing a show flight. 

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The Thunderbirds appeared in 1953, and their central goal has continued as before since the group’s inception: To Recruit, Retain, and Inspire. Pilots should have in any event 750 hours of fly time prior to having the option to apply for the part of Thunderbird pilot, as it’s perhaps the most coveted positions an appraised pilot in the USAF can expect. Prior to joining the group, Maj. Curran went through three years on a task flying the F-16 out of Misawa, Japan, and an additional three years as an instructor pilot out of Ft. Worth. She’s the primary ever female to fly the lead solo position. Being a Thunderbird pilot is typically a two-year task, yet because of COVID-19, it’s being expanded a year. The Thunderbirds participated in Operation America Strong: On April 28, the Navy’s flight exhibition group, The Blue Angels, along with the Thunderbirds, performed flyovers in NY, NJ, and PA intended to champion public solidarity behind bleeding edge responders. Maj. Curran disclosed to me the America Strong flyover isn’t probably going to happen once more, saying “the FAA was ready, and the city was ready, and air traffic was light in what’s normally perhaps the busiest region in the country. Ordinarily there are a huge load of restrictions.” 

The essential mission of the Thunderbirds is to recruit future airmen.

Their show season has been cut short this year, however it officially begins tomorrow in Ocean City, Maryland. The group has invested the energy they’ve been grounded analyzing their daily practice and improving it. Lt. Col. John D. Caldwell, the commander of the Thunderbirds and Thunderbird pilot no. 1, has driven a push to inspect the everyday practice and see how it’s changed over the course of the years by investigating the schedules from the ’90s until now. Would it be a good idea for it to follow the example of a firecracker show with an amazing finale? Would it be advisable for it to gradually escalate in its force? The pilots apparently fly without hardly lifting a finger, however there’s a lot of psychology engaged with arranging a daily practice. The Thunderbirds are historically known for flying with grace in perfect synchronization; simply examine this recording from 1965 of a previous airframe the Thunderbirds worked, the F-100 Super Saber. This perfect balance is shown in the present daily practice, however there’s a certain proportion of crude, quick, boisterous, and brutish flying that highlight the idea of the F-16. 

Formation flying in 1966.

The North American F-100 Super Saber in Thunderbirds livery. 

The interesting capabilities of the F-16 snap into focus during the independent exhibition passes. The main move performed is typically the blade edge pass, and this is the place where mechanical timekeeping comes into play. Maj Curran clarified, in detail, how she utilizes the stopwatch to pull off this maneuver. 

A day before the show, Maj. Curran and Captain Kyle S. Oliver, the contradicting solo pilot, will overview the show region and decide on “hack focuses” in light of a foreordained “show center,” a point that is directly in the center of the review territory. In the desert around Nellis Air Force Base where the Thunderbirds practice, a recreated show center is set apart by a steel trailer painted brilliant orange. The hack focuses are recorded as GPS coordinates, however visual references are basically utilized. Maj. Curran clarifies that occasionally it tends to be a house, in some cases a field, or even a structure. The hack focuses are four miles from the show center, and they’re reflected, one hack point on each side. The pass will include the F-16s entering the show region from contradicting directions and flying straight towards each other at 450 bunches, both descending from 2000 ft. to 200 ft. to meet on a line flying directly towards each other. 

Maj. Curran’s left hand is on the choke, while her correct hand is on the sidestick out of casing. The F-16 uses a conventional two-pedal rudder control set up. 

Once the performance pilots sever from the development, Maj. Curran gets on the radio and declares “Performances, point at your hacks!”

The F-16s begin to turn towards the reference focuses they decided on the day before. 

Next, a pilot from the precious stone development will call out that they’re in situation for the performance pilots to begin their pass schedule.

The solo pilots are quickly approaching their hack point, and Maj. Curran will call out on the radio, “reserve hack, we should hack now” as the two pilots are going to reach their hack focuses. In the fly, both performance pilots will rehash “we should hack now” and they’ll connect with the stopwatch on “now,” beginning a 30-second synchronized timer. 

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When Maj. Curran discovered that I was keen on the timekeeping aspect of the Thunderbirds schedule, she reached out to a Thunderbird solo pilot who had performed during the ’90 and ’91 seasons. That pilot disclosed to her that they did the exact same thing with the exact same stopwatches. So this practice has been utilized for at any rate thirty years. That previous Thunderbird reached out to the most seasoned living Thunderbird pilot, Major General Gerald D. Larson, to discover how solo passes were acted in the good ‘ol days when the Thunderbirds were flying the F-100C. General Larson said they had visual references apportioned from show center and would utilize the radio to sync up in 1965, yet no stopwatches were used.

Major General Gerald D. Larson, the most established living Thunderbird pilot. The lead solo pilot in 1965. 

The amusing thing is that the stopwatch hasn’t changed much since 1965 (or much prior, besides), the lone difference is that as right on time as the ’90s, the Thunderbirds chose to utilize it. Maj. Curran says, “It runs like a champ. I don’t think they’ve replaced any since I’ve been in the group.” She’s on her second year with the Thunderbirds. During a standard daily schedule, the heap on the stopwatch (and pilot) reaches 9Gs on various occasions. That is a gigantic measure of force to be subjected to on a semi-everyday schedule, except it’s been working for as long as thirty years, and if it’s not broken, there’s no compelling reason to fix it. 

At the very point that the pilots hack their stopwatch, they should each be four miles from show center, voyaging 450 bunches ground speed – planes can show indicated velocity, ground speed, and genuine velocity, yet for a move this way, ground speed is utilized because there are various factors that can affect timing at this height, similar to winds. One pilot will face a headwind that will mean a tailwind for the other, and that could mean they don’t cross at exactly show center and the example is tossed off. Solo pilots constantly play out a “clear,” scanning different instruments in the cockpit, of which the stopwatch is one. Maj. Curran reports that she appreciates the decipherability of a simple clock in the cockpit. Watching the broad seconds hand has become a standard piece of her flight schedule.

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When the clock reaches 15 seconds, the two pilots ought to be 3.7 miles from show center.

At 20 seconds, 3.2 miles.

At 25 seconds, 2.6 miles. 

Finally, at 30 seconds, they’re each 2 miles from show center closing in on each other at a collective 900 bunches ground speed. Maj. Curran calls out the move, “Blade Edge!” to which Capt. Oliver in the no. 6 plane will answer ‘Blade Edge!”

At this point, there is not any more cross-checking the stopwatch against the reach show in the cockpit or the GPS. It’s all visual at this point. The two pilots may tweak the choke or apply the speed brakes to keep up the perfect approach. 

That’s the reason they call it an “contradicting blade edge” pass. 

Right when it would seem that the two F-16s will connect with each other, the pilots fold into a position perfectly perpendicular to the ground so the underside of the plane faces each other. This is the place where the name of the “blade edge” move comes from. On account of some master steering and a dependable stopwatch, the move goes off without a hitch.

The F-16 has 27,000 pounds of push on tap.

It’s imperative to take note of that each move is reviewed, and each time a fly makes a pass, each metric is dissected. On the off chance that a fly is off by a couple hundred feet, the pilot will catch wind of it during questioning. Precision is vital, and that is the reason the stopwatch is so important. 

Over a Zoom call, Maj. Curran clarifies how she utilizes the stopwatch in the performance flight demonstration. 

An advertisement for the Rolex “Thunderbird.” The story goes that the pilots were given these watches by Rolex. 

Of course, I needed to ask Maj. Curran what she wears in the cockpit. I was secretly trusting it was a Rolex Datejust Turn-O-Graph, specifically one produced during the ’50s decorated with the Thunderbird emblem, a depiction of a mythical creature from the legend of native people groups. In any case, the Thunderbirds of today are exclusively focused on functionality rather than collectible Rolex references. Maj. Curran said she was given a Garmin fenix watch because it acts as an alert if cockpit pressure fluctuates past ostensible boundaries, which could prompt full cockpit depressurization. Normally, the cockpit pressure is kept at 8,000 ft., however on the off chance that it changes drastically, the watch will vibrate. 

After her task with the Thunderbirds is up, Maj. Curran will return to flying combat missions. “The change back to tactical flying versus exhibition flying isn’t in every case simple,” she says.

But I wager she’ll make it look easy. 

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