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Face of Defense: This Thunderbird Flies High

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Air Force Capt. Michelle Curran has already had a storied career. Over the past decade, she’s logged more than 1,200 flight hours as a pilot and was the first woman assigned to fly in the 355th Fighter Squadron.

Now, she’s showing off her talents to the public with the Thunderbirds, the Air Force’s celebrated air demonstration squadron. She’s one of eight aviators on the team and serves as the No. 6 jet’s opposing solo pilot, meaning she performs passes, rolls and tight turns to show off the maximum capabilities of the F-16 Fighting Falcon. This year, the Thunderbirds are scheduled to perform in their distinctive red, white and blue jets at 65 air shows in 33 locations all over the world.

Air Force Capt. Michelle ''Mace'' Curran
Hometown: Medford, Wisconsin
Unit: U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds Air Demonstration Squadron
Stationed: Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada
Job Title: Opposing solo pilot

Official photo of pilot in uniform.
Michelle Curran
Air Force Capt. Michelle Curran.
Photo By: Air Force photo
VIRIN: 190128-F-ZZ999-572

What inspired you to join the Air Force?

I had a grandpa who was a lieutenant in the Navy. I went through his World War II trunk and tried on uniforms and looked at postcards. He got to travel all over the world. I grew up in a small town and I wanted to travel. I’ve always been drawn to flying. I hadn’t done a lot of flying aside from commercially, but I loved it, so the Air Force seemed like a natural fit. I was also honestly looking for a scholarship for college, so the three things kind of came together.

Four F-16 Fighting Falcons emit heavy condensation trails in a clear blue sky.
Diamond Loop
Air Force Thunderbirds pilots perform the “Line to Diamond Loop” maneuver during the Warriors over the Wasatch Air Show at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, June 25, 2016.
Photo By: Air Force Tech. Sgt. Christopher Boitz
VIRIN: 160625-F-HA566-346C

What would you say to young girls in the crowd watching you perform?

You have to exceed people’s expectations. People are going to set expectations for you based on where you grew up, the family you came from, your gender — there are all different factors that go into that. Constantly do your best, strive for perfection, exceed those expectations, and really don’t shortchange yourself. Don’t set boundaries that don’t really exist, that you just place there for yourself. You’ll be surprised at all of the things you can do if you just keep pushing. You could be flying a fighter one day!

A crowd points toward the sky, where four F-16 Fighting Falcons are flying in a diamond formation.
Aerial Demonstration
The Air Force Thunderbirds open their aerial demonstration with the “Diamond Opener” during the Mountain Madness 2014 Air Show in Kalispell, Mont., Aug. 30, 2014.
Photo By: Air Force Tech. Sgt. Manuel J. Martinez
VIRIN: 140829-F-RR679-1792C

Who were your role models growing up?

My dad. He was a big outdoorsman, and my big hobbies are all outdoors stuff, so that was inspiring for sure. He’s also a thrill-seeker. We would ride roller coasters all day at theme parks, as soon as I was tall enough to do it. And then he’s also a great dad — super supportive, super kind and funny. I like to think I take after him.

Four red, white and blue F-16 Fighting Falcons fly in a diamond formation.
Thunderbirds Demonstration
The Air Force Thunderbirds demonstration team flies in formation at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va., during the Airpower Over Hampton Roads JBLE Air and Space Expo, May 20, 2018. The four-jet diamond formation demonstrates the training and precision of Air Force pilots.
Photo By: Air Force Staff Sgt. Areca T. Bell
VIRIN: 180520-F-IT851-0223C

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not flying?

I’m known for having an excessive number of hobbies. Mountaineering is probably the biggest one, which is always a big trip to climb some mountain somewhere. Rock climbing is another one, so they kind of go hand in hand. Camping, hiking, all the outdoors stuff, and traveling as well — hopefully traveling to a mountain somewhere, ideally.

Video by Air Force Staff Sgt. Jared Bunn

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