19:32 PM

Thunderbirds Cite CAP Cadet Beginnings

Walsh, Hoffman Speak With Ala. Wing Cadets at Maxwell Air Show

By Jennifer S. Kornegay
Contributing Writer

Watching the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds zip, dip, spiral and roll across a blue sky makes for an afternoon of exciting entertainment. But “why they fly” goes far beyond thrilling the crowds that always assemble at their performances.

As the Air Force’s fighter demonstration team, the Thunderbirds' purpose is to showcase the power and speed of the F-16 Fighting Falcon jet as well as the precision and expertise of its elite fighter pilots.

The aerial acrobatics they pull off draw gasps of awe from watchers far below, and the pilots are just as impressive on the ground. Two of the current Thunderbirds can trace their success back to their time as CAP cadets. Before wowing the audience at an air show this weekend at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, home of CAP National Headquarters, Lt. Col. Kevin Walsh and Maj. Nate Hoffman took a few minutes to answer questions and share what their CAP experiences mean to them with three Maxwell Composite Squadron cadets.

Walsh is Thunderbird No. 7 and operations officer for the squadron, meaning while he does fly sometimes, during air shows, he serves as safety observer and also oversees both ground and air traffic control. Interest in aviation motivated him to join the New York Wing’s Quentin Roosevelt Cadet Squadron at age 13.

“I knew early I wanted to be a pilot, but I couldn’t afford lessons, so I saw CAP as an avenue to delve into flying,” he said.

But he found more than just aviation education: “It solidified my interest but also gave me important exposure to the military and the Air Force that eventually led me to the Air Force Academy.”

Right wing pilot Hoffman, Thunderbird No. 3, is in his first season with the squadron. During shows, he stays next to the lead Thunderbird, flying in tight formations that highlight exacting accuracy and skill.

Hoffman was 14 when he joined CAP in Illinois. It was the organization’s service mission that first appealed to him.

“The way CAP is committed to supporting communities across the country inspired me to be a part of it,” he said. “And then I did my first solo flight through CAP, and after that, I was hooked.”

Like Walsh, Hoffman said his three years as a cadet were a great introduction to the way the Air Force operates, and he credits that “head start” as an integral component of his achievements so far. “CAP gave me the basics of the Air Force, and that gave me a leg up on others entering the military at the same time,” he said.

Cadet 1st Lt. Matthew Warren, 16, asked the two pilots if being a Thunderbird was fun. Hoffman called it “a blast,” and Walsh agreed, also stressing the eye-opening opportunities it has provided. “It’s given me a chance to really see the world,” he said.

Hoffman also shared how close he came to never wearing that coveted navy blue flight suit. “I started as a communications officer because my eyes were actually too bad for me to be a pilot,” he said. He underwent corrective surgery and got the needed waivers from his commanding officers to enter flight training, but before he knew if he would be able to make the cut, one of his superiors asked him what he would do if he couldn’t fly.

“I said I didn’t know, and he said, ‘You’ll be the best damn communications officer you can be.’ That’s my advice to anyone now. Whatever you end up doing, be the best you can be at it.”

And Hoffman reaffirmed that the cadets had made a strong choice by joining CAP. “CAP takes young people with a sense of adventure and teaches them how to serve others and then allows them to do that in a lot of different ways. That’s what makes CAP special,” he said.

“If you have a passion for aviation and for service, CAP is the place for you.”