Caesar Rodney alum soars with the Thunderbirds

“Thunder Over Dover” will be a homecoming for Thunderbirds team member Tabatha McCarthy, a Caesar Rodney High graduate. She is a communications specialist for the elite U.S. Air Force flying team. (Submitted photo)

DOVER — Back in 2009, Tabatha McCarthy was just two years out of high school when officers from the Thunderbirds swore her in on the flight line at Dover Air Force Base.

The Caesar Rodney High graduate, at the time, had no idea that the enlistment ceremony would not be her first and only experience with the Thunderbirds.

“My jaw hit the floor when I saw them performing,” she said.

Six years later, she was in one of the jets as a passenger and a rookie on the team’s public affairs team.

As a community relations specialist, she will be working at “Thunder Over Dover” this week, and she is excited about the homecoming.

The Thunderbirds’ team of pilots will perform precision aerial maneuvers Saturday and Sunday next weekend as the headliners of the open house at Dover Air Force Base.

Staff Sgt. McCarthy will arrive Thursday in a C-17 or a C-130.

“I’m very excited to come home to Delaware, especially with my job,” she said. “I’m very proud to be on the team. It’s an honor.

“To come back home in a non-leave status and for work, and let my family and friends see what I do and that this is the team I’m a part of, I’m so excited for them to see what I actually do. I don’t think they really know all that I do. They know I take pictures because I talk about it all the time and they see my pictures.”

It will be special, too, for her father Brian McCarthy and mother Kimber Love, both of whom were in security forces in the Air Force.

“Growing up, hearing their stories, I just figured the Air Force was the way to go,” said Staff Sgt. McCarthy. When she was in the Air Force JROTC at Caesar Rodney, she always thought she would join, she said.

One of the perks of the homecoming, she said, is a “FARKLE.”

The funny-sounding acronym stands for “friends and relatives, kinfolk, loved ones and everyone else.”

For members of the Thunderbirds’ team, it is a special opportunity for those making homecomings.

The lead pilot and commander of the squadron will share with her guests what she does and thank them for their support. Staff Sgt. McCarthy’s friends and family will get to shake hands with all of the pilots and gather for a group photo.

“Since my dad and my mom were both in the Air Force, it will take them back, being up close and personal with a military aircraft, especially an F-16,” said Staff Sgt. McCarthy.

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Staff Sgt. McCarthy grew up in Magnolia and attended Delaware Technical Community College, Terry Campus, for a year after high school. She got her break with the Thunderbirds after a lengthy stay at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina.

“When I joined, I joined as a basic still photographer,” she said. “When I got my first duty assignment at Shaw Air Force Base, I was there for 5 ½ years. I called myself the ‘grandma’ of the shop because I was the one that stayed there the longest, and had been there when people came and left.

“I wanted to get out of Shaw and experience more,” she said. “I decided to talk to my leadership and asked, ‘What do I need to do to get out of Shaw AFB?’ They said, ‘Well, there is an opening with the Thunderbirds.’

“I thought that they were such an amazing and elite team that I didn’t even know if I had what it took. I didn’t know if I had the experience needed. I was a little nervous and I said, ‘You gotta try.’”

Tabatha McCarthy’s job includes photography and coordination with visitors.

There was a 15-page application, she said, and it required such things as leadership and performance reports and fitness assessments.

As you’ve already read, she got the job. It is a three-year commitment for enlisted.

“When I got the news, I actually cried,” said Staff Sgt. McCarthy. “I cried because they’re such an elite team. I was so happy and so surprised.”

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She started in May 2015 and traveled with the Thunderbirds a month later to Michigan.

“They were like, ‘Hey, this is your first trip and what better way to make it an amazing one than to have your familiarization flight in Traverse City,’” she said. “They pull all the maneuvers they do during the show.”

She got to feel the G-forces and experience what the pilots feel in those F-16 jets.

“I think I pulled a little over 7 Gs,” she said. “My body didn’t handle it as well as some people’s do.

Staff Sgt. Tabatha McCarthy

“The feeling of pulling Gs is literally like an elephant sitting on your chest when you’re trying to breathe.”

She explained the nose of the jet constantly moving during the maneuvers is what creates those forces.

“The max turn is the one that I pulled 7 Gs on,” she said. “During the show, it’s when one of the solos comes from the left, and they literally just do a horizontal circle. That’s our max turn.”

The trick, she said, is breathing properly.

“They teach you to do the Hick Maneuver,” said Staff Sgt. McCarthy.

There’s a word of warning that the Gs are coming, she said.

“Take a deep breath and once you start pulling Gs, you only release a little bit of air, so you make kind of like a ‘hkk’ sound and you only release a little bit of air. This allows the blood flow to your heart and your brain without making you pass out or anything like that.”

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The Thunderbirds’ home is Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.

Staff Sgt. McCarthy handles tours there for the team. She said one of the realizations of her step up was that she did about 15 tours a year at Shaw. With the Thunderbirds, that happens weekly.

Another of her duties is facilitating the Fallen Warrior Program in which fallen military or first responders are honored.

“It’s an amazing job. I have never regretted applying,” she said. “To be a part of a team to this stature, it’s an honor. It has been an amazing experience. Every day is a new journey.”

The Thunderbirds’ pilots are “the best of the best” in the Air Force, she said.

Knowing Delaware well, she said people will see and hear the jets even a couple of miles from the base.

But, the views and experiences, she said, are best on the base. She said spectators should bring ear protection.

“We’ll have a couple of sneak passes that will get their adrenaline pumping for a couple of seconds,” said Staff Sgt. McCarthy.

An announcer will narrate the performance, so you’ll want to have your cameras ready.

Staff Sgt. McCarthy said she has looked out at the crowds at shows and noticed how people are always at the ready with cameras and smartphones.

“It is really good to take a couple of photos because you want to document the experience,” she said. “You can’t go back in time.”

But maybe think about taking just take a few and try to experience it with your only your eyes. “You get to take it in a little bit more,” she said.

“Every now and then, it makes me smile when I see a dad holding up a little girl on his shoulders, or maybe it’s a son, and there’s no phone … ” she said. “I just see the biggest smile on both of their faces, and guess what, that’s what matters. Your kids are going to see the show with you and experience it that way.”

Reach editor Andrew West at awest@newszap.com

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