(PETERSON SPACE FORCE BASE, Colo.) — The Thunderbirds brought along a special guest as they soared over Southern Colorado’s skies on the morning of May 31.
Speed skater and gold medalist Apolo Ohno spent several hours briefing, and then he was ready to hit the tarmac.
“It’s hard to articulate the feelings that you have when you’re in the in the jet, but it’s just so much pressure on the body, but it’s also so much precision at the same time,” Ohno recalled.
The U.S. Air Force Acadmey has been inviting Olympians to ride with them since 2019 to reinforce the relationship between the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and Museum and the Academy.
And this year, Ohno was invited, and also got to take his turn in the driver’s seat.
“He let me grab the, you know, the joystick and it was incredible,” Ohno said. “It just, I still have, like, my legs are a little bit wobbly. My emotions are a little bit all over the place. But it was awesome.”
Ohno is the most decorated American to compete in the Winter Olympics. With his speed, in 2002, 2006 and 2010 he hearned eight medals — two gold, two silver and four bronze.
His career mirrors the fitness level it takes to fly with the Thunderbirds.
“You have to be very physically fit,” said Maj. Jeffrey “Simmer” Downie. “Obviously, Apolo is very well suited to that with being an Olympic athlete. And it was testament to how he did on the flight. An incredible job hanging with, and it is a very physical endeavor. But he really crushed it.”
But, nothing can prepare you for the G-force, even if you like to go fast.
“I don’t think you can train for this,” Ohno said. “This is, I mean, we all want to be strong and fit and healthy, but this is something that’s really unique. I had never felt that sort of pressure on my body.”
The multiple considerations including the power of the plane around you make this some of the most difficult training pilots go through.
“These pilots — they fly twice a day, six days a week with one day off — if we’re lucky to get to do that. And, it’s a 100 ride upgrade to do what they do proficiently,” Downie said.
He added this is a big deal to be an expert in what you do, since they will fly in formation mere feet from each other.
“To get to the point where they can execute this demonstration not only safely, but to the point or precision to where it’s that excellence in human achievement where people look up and they’re just in awe,” Downie said.