Meet Michelle Curran: Thunderbird 6

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2019 Winter Training is well underway for the United States Air Force Thunderbirds, and three new pilots are making their transition to the team’s signature Delta formation. Out of those three newbies, one stands out a little more than the others: Captain Michelle Curran, the 2019 Opposing Solo, also known as Thunderbird 6. Michelle is a native of Medford, Wisconsin, and has been in the Air Force nearly 10 years. She has accumulated over 1250 flight hours in three aircraft, including the T-6, T-38, and the F-16 Fighting Falcon. We had the opportunity to speak with Michelle recently as she prepares for the 2019 show season, and here’s how it went:

1. Callsign, and how’d you get it? 

-MACE…you know the rules! We can’t just throw that info out all willy nilly. Traditionally, the stories behind callsigns are only told over a beverage to a trusted few.

2. First of all, congratulations on your new role as Thunderbird 6! What was it like when you received the news that you had been selected as a Thunderbird?

-I had been anxiously awaiting to hear from the Team, not only because I was very excited and hopeful, but I also had my next assignment pending and needed to get the ball rolling to start my move. When I did get the call, I was ecstatic. Once the initial excitement started to wear off, I was a little nervous about the big shoes I had to fill, but mostly grateful for the opportunity I had just been given. 

3. When did you decided that you wanted to be a pilot, and what inspired you to join the Air Force and become a fighter pilot?

-I initially joined the Air Force through an ROTC scholarship. I was a criminal justice major and torn between pursuing OSI or a pilot slot until about halfway through my time in ROTC. I had decided to apply for an ROTC scholarship, not only because of the cost of getting an education, but also because I was inspired to be part of something with a bigger purpose and with a high level of comradery. I’ve always been a thrill seeker and someone that sought out challenges. When it came down to it, I decided becoming a pilot, especially a fighter pilot, would fulfill these traits better than any other career. 

4. What advice do you have to young girls who want to become a pilot and possibly start a career in aviation, whether it be civilian or military? 

-Do your research, figure out your plan, and don’t give up. It’s a long, and sometimes challenging, road on both the military and civilian side. Although this is improving, there will be people who doubt your ability to do the job. Use this to fuel your motivation to make yourself better. Don’t limit yourself because of others’ expectations of what you should or shouldn’t’ do. Work hard to fulfill your potential and you’ll achieve things you never thought possible. 

5. What was it like stepping into the red, white, and blue jet for the first time?

-I was definitely nervous and excited, but there was so much to learn that is specific to the Thunderbirds that those feelings were overshadowed by the focus needed to keep up with the jet. There was still definitely a surreal moment, while holding short of the runway ,where I was in a bit of disbelief that I had actually been selected and was about to take off for my first flight.  

6. What’s it like flying the F-16, and what makes it ideal for the demo?

-It’s fun and challenging! On previous assignments the avionics usage and tactics were the parts that required constant study and refinement. As a Solo on the Team, I get to demonstrate the max performance of the aircraft so the flying itself is demanding, but so fun. The Viper is a great demo aircraft because it flies smooth and graceful in the diamond, can pull 9Gs in the max turn, and wows the crowd with how fast and loud it is during the sneak pass. It really is a great balance of power, beauty, and shock and awe.  

7. How is winter training going, and what has been the hardest part of your transition to the demo thus far?

-We’re very busy during training season. Typically, we fly 5-10 upgrade flights per week to learn our new positions. The members of the team from last year are just as busy being our instructors. So far it is going well and I just hit the halfway mark on my syllabus. I have nearly 80 flights to learn the full Opposing Solo profile and it has been very rewarding to progress in proficiency. It’s hard to say one maneuver or flight has been the hardest. The biggest challenge has probably been incorporating it all together, the maneuvers themselves, stepping down in altitude restrictions, communication standards that are very specific to the Thunderbirds, and learning the ground show. Trying to master all of those things while getting ready for the upcoming show season and all the demands that come with that has been a steep learning curve. 

8. We know it’s still somewhat early, but do you have a favorite maneuver so far or a part of the demo that you look forward to the most?

-I like rolling so probably Vertical Rolls. The opposing passes, especially the Opposing Split-S, are also very fun!

9. Do you have a show site or event that you are looking forward to the most this season?

-There are several shows I am looking forward to. I think the trip to Colombia will definitely be a fun one and a chance to build some foreign partnerships. The flyovers for the Super Bowl and the Daytona 500 will also be a great chance for us to represent the Air Force and other branches of the military on a huge scale. 

10. What are you most excited about as you embark on your new adventure as a Thunderbird? Flying, fan interaction, etc.?

-I’m definitely most excited about the chance to inspire the next generation of aviators, and the public in general, this season. That is really why I applied for the team. The flying is fun, but the opportunity to share my passion with so many people was what really sold it. 

11. You’re not the only girl flying an F-16 on the air show circuit this year. Have you had a chance to speak to Zoe Kotnik, F-16 Viper Demo Pilot, yet? 

-I had the chance to finally meet Zoe at ICAS in Las Vegas last month. We had both heard a lot about each other and it was nice to put a face with a name. I’m definitely happy to see that women are being represented on multiple demo teams this season. I know Zoe will do a great job with her team and I look forward to seeing all the inspiring she does this year.  

12. Have you gotten a chance to speak with any of the previous female demo pilots? If so, what advice did they give you?

-Yes, I’ve had the chance to talk to 3 of the 4 previous team members. They were all extremely supportive and excited to see another female pilot make the team. They emphasized how important my role is and the responsibility that comes with it. Female fighter pilots are generally a pretty tight knit group and it’s great to have that support network behind me while I get to be an ambassador to the public for the next couple years. 

We’d like to thank Captain Michelle Curran for taking the time to speak with us, and we know she’s anxiously awaiting the opportunity to speak with all of you at a show this season! Stay tuned for more exclusive content as we near the 2019 season!