The Air Force’s vaunted Thunderbirds jet fighter aerobatics team is not diverse enough inside the cockpit.
Brig. Gen. Christopher M. Short, commander of the 57th Wing at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, said in an email last month that of 15 pilot applicants for three openings, 14 are white.
He asked fighter wing commanders to stir up more candidates who “don’t necessarily look like each of you.” He bemoaned the fact that, not only is there a lack of diversity, but the number of applicants to make the world-famous team has taken a puzzling drop in the past two years.
“I am asking for your help in finding the right pilots for next year’s Thunderbirds team,” is how Gen. Short begins his email.
“While we have several qualified candidates that many of you submitted, I am lacking the depth in talent we’ve seen in previous years and I am lacking in diversity of gender, ethnicity and [aircraft type] background,” Gen. Short wrote.
All eight current Thunderbird pilots are white males. Of the eight, six fly the demonstrations, one flies as the lead and narrator, and one is the operations officer. They fly on the team for two years, and three of the six demonstration fliers are replaced annually.
Gen. Short told the story of former Thunderbird pilot Caroline “Blaze” Jensen, the team’s right wing and No. 3 (now one of the openings), who was not only a skilled performer but also a public relations asset. The longest lines of fans seeking autographs typically formed in front of her.