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Under wing of Levittown native, Thunderbirds prep for 2018 season

The U.S. Air Force’s demonstration squadron performed at last year’s Bethpage Air Show at Jones Beach; organizers hope they’ll return in 2019.

Levittown native and St. Anthony's High School graduate

Levittown native and St. Anthony's High School graduate Lt. Col. Kevin Walsh walks away from a Thunderbirds plane he piloted after landing at Long Island MacArthur Airport on May 25, 2017. Photo Credit: Barry Sloan

Imagine commuting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Long Island Expressway — while driving at more than 600 mph.

That’s the white-knuckled analogy for the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds flight demonstrations offered by Lt. Col. Kevin Walsh, the Levittown native promoted last month to lead the squadron.

Walsh, 38, a graduate of St. Anthony’s High School in South Huntington who served two years as the Thunderbirds’ operations officer, is now honing the precision flying needed to lead the supersonic acrobatics ahead of the 2018 air show season.

The combat veteran also is managing the nearly 140-strong squadron — including 12 officers, 130 enlisted personnel and a handful of civilians.

The Thunderbirds performed at the 2017 Bethpage Air Show at Jones Beach. The Navy’s Blue Angels are scheduled to perform at the 2018 Jones Beach show, which is scheduled for May 26 and 27. State parks officials hope the Thunderbirds return in 2019.

Walsh, a career F-16 pilot, said he is looking forward to helping new team members learn their roles; half of the Thunderbirds’ eight pilots are new, as are two of the other four officers with the team.

Leading the hazardous high-speed aerial ballet requires Walsh to perfect his ability to fly consistently and with a steady hand because the other pilots synchronize their moves with him.

“I have to be as predictable and as smooth and as stable as possible,” he said.

To reach that pinnacle, Walsh said he will spend weeks preparing in a two-seater fighter jet with an instructor behind him to “determine how stable a platform I am providing” for the sole wingman flying alongside.

New Thunderbird pilots must learn how to “push past personal boundaries,” he said, explaining the natural reluctance anyone feels about flying just a few feet apart at hundreds of mph.

“There’s also some trust to build up, so you know the person flying so close isn’t going to make an abrupt maneuver,” Walsh said.

This is not a process that can be rushed.

As the training progresses, the entire team will begin flying together, gradually shrinking the distance between their supersonic fighter jets.

“The congestion on the Long Island Expressway at rush hour is about how close we are to each other,” Walsh said.

Demonstration flying, Walsh explained, is “180 degrees” different from flying in combat, where the farther away the jets are, the more area their sensors can cover.

Walsh, who spent childhood summers at Jones Beach State Park, says his achievements offer hope to youths wishing to break free of patterns that lead to misdeeds.

“I was the most ill-behaved sibling,” said Walsh, though he prefers to keep his family private.

He partially attributes his turnaround to entering eighth grade as a stranger in a new school, which gave him a chance to “reset.”

“That was a turning point for me,” Walsh said. “I didn’t know anybody other than a couple of friends.”

This relative anonymity allowed him “to focus on just working and studying and getting good grades, and I think that’s what helped posture me for high school,” he said.

After attending a preparatory year at Valley Forge Military Academy and College in Wayne, Pennsylvania, Walsh graduated from the Air Force Academy in 2002.

Walsh, who has served four Middle East tours, taught at the European F-16 Weapons School in the Netherlands before joining the Thunderbirds two years ago as its No. 7 pilot, the director of operations.

In November, Walsh was promoted to interim commander of the Thunderbirds after Brig. Gen. Jeannie Leavitt relieved Lt. Col. Jason Heard. She had lost confidence in Heard’s leadership and risk-management style, the Air Force said at the time.

The team had finished last year’s scheduled air show season, and officials said the June 23, 2017, crash of an F-16 flown by another team member before a performance in Dayton, Ohio, was not the reason. The $29 million jet was destroyed after it skidded off the runway in the rain and turned over. The pilot was injured; his passenger was not.

Walsh was officially promoted as the No. 1 Thunderbirds pilot in mid-December, thanks to his “rapport” with the team, the Air Force said.

And having served as the squadron’s operations officer, Walsh also has mastered the organizing strengths needed to put on about 70 performances in 35 or so locations.

Many aspects of being part of the Thunderbirds team center on meticulous discipline and preparation. Walsh noted they analyze each of the team’s 37-minute shows for about an hour afterward to identify areas for improvement.

The daredevils depicted in fiction or movies likely wouldn’t make the grade.

“I tend to be a conservative guy, and I tend to take that mentality to the nth degree,” Walsh said.

The pilots must be in superb physical condition to withstand the force of the gravity exerted during flight, and the team’s rigorous schedule includes finding both the time and gyms to work out while on the road.

There might be some slight leeway in a 100 percent adherence to a Spartan diet, however.

Just before spending the holidays with his family in Levittown, Walsh said: “I may get a bacon, egg and cheese roll from the nearest deli, maybe a bagel and slice of pizza.”

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