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Face of Defense: Guard ‘T-bird’ Pilot Wheels Enthusiasm at Air Show

By Air Force Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith
Special to American Forces Press Service

ANDREWS AIR FORCE BASE, Md., May 15, 2009 – As acrobatic aircraft buzzed overhead as part of the run-up to the annual air show here this weekend, Air Force Lt. Col. Derek Routt paid more notice to the parked, baby-blue and white business jets on the ground -- aircraft used by the nation’s elected and military leaders.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Air Force Lt. Col. Derek Routt, “Thunderbird No. 7,” looks across the flight line on Andrews Air Force Base, Md., May 14, 2009, before an upcoming air show. Routt is a Nevada Air National Guard member in his first season as operations officer for the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron “Thunderbirds.” U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

The first Air National Guard officer to serve with the Air Force Thunderbirds was enjoying his time outside the nation’s capital, his eighth event since joining the team.

A trim, operations officer in his late 30s, Routt wore the dark-blue flight suit of the Thunderbirds with nary a thread out of place. He likes to make sure there is “no distinguishing between a Guard, reserve or active-duty Thunderbird,” he said.

“This is a true-to-form, total force team,” he said. “When I tell people that I am a Guardsman it brings a lot of questions, and that allows me to talk about the Air Guard. But it really doesn’t matter what service or what capacity, to serve is the No. 1 goal.”

Even as a Guard member, Routt flew the F-15 Eagle in Nevada with what officials call the “most diverse wing in the Air Force” – the 57th at Nellis Air Force Base. The Thunderbirds are based just down the street.

“I had some people approach me about applying for the position, and I applied and went through the process,” he said. He made the grade.

It is Routt’s first time working as an operations officer, and he is doing it as the second-in-command of the nation’s premiere F-16 Fighting Falcon squadron.

“I run the operations business, which means I put aircraft in the air, put pilots into aircraft and make sure that their training is done. During the show, and all the way through our season, my No. 1 job is safety,” he said.

Routt will travel with the team – 11 officers and 120 enlisted airmen – on a schedule of air shows across the nation and as far as Hawaii until November. Then he will prepare for his second, and final, 2010 season.

Routt flies Thunderbird No. 7 to and from shows. The plane is used as a spare and in support missions. “You can think of the operations officer as more of a producer of the show, who controls the air space, people, communications and gear,” he said. “While the guys are flying, I’m controlling the airfield and ensuring the team is doing it safe and properly.”

Routt is overseeing operations of a squadron constantly under the public eye, where its ground-air movements are highly coordinated, planned and synchronized. He supervises the safety of pilots who fly near supersonic speeds within feet of each other.

But he was looking around the flight line yesterday morning, more a spectator than a participant. He said his status and schedule has not dulled his childhood excitement for air shows and airplanes.

“Wouldn’t it be great to take that up,” he said, smiling and pointing toward a vintage, World War II fighter aircraft. “Now that would be awesome.”

(Air Force Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith serves with the National Guard Bureau).

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