What's up, Reddit?

You've heard from Thunderbirds 1, 3, 5, and 6. They've talked about the challenges leading the Thunderbird airshow, barrel rolling 3 feet from another aircraft's wing, and flying at 150 feet, upside down, at 500+ miles per hour. They've also talked about combat experiences in the F-15, F-16, and F-22 as well as experiences around the world in the United States Air Force. I'm ready to discuss all that and more.

As the slot pilot for the 2013 USAF Aerial Demonstration Squadron, I'm ready for you to Ask Me Anything! I can tell you what it's like watching the show from the best seat in the house, flying 18 inches from the bottom Thunderbird 1's jet in "Arrowhead", or transitioning from -1Gs to +8Gs during the "Bomb Burst" rejoin. I would also love to tell you about my experience flying the F-15E Strike Eagle in the UK, France, Bulgaria, Romania, Qatar, Afghanistan, Iraq, or all over the United States. I'm a native of Downingtown, Pennsylvania and a huge fan of outdoor sports and events. I’m also a husband and father. I look forward to hearing from you!

Comments: 146 • Responses: 44  • Date: 

iwanttofork11 karma

I remember watching the Thunderbirds on the tv show The Colbert Report back in 2009 and noticed everyone salutes really fast. Is that a special salute only Thunderbird pilots use?

afthunderbirds16 karma

Funny you ask... It's not a special salute, but it's done fast for a reason. We use this greeting every day we fly, with 20+ maintenance guys on the line and 6 officers. If you don't learn to salute and shake hands quick on this team, you'll get run over!

_Tix_7 karma

When are you guys coming back to Luke AFB?

I missed your squad's display years ago and I've been kicking myself since!

afthunderbirds6 karma

Hopefully soon! There are so many discussions on so many levels about next year that there's just no telling how it will shape up, but I loved spending 8 weeks in Phoenix learning to fly this airplane and would love to come back!

redfox26 karma

I used to be an air traffic controller in the tower at Randolph AFB, Texas. One particular day we were expecting the Thunderbirds because they were going to put on a show for the weekend. I was working local position, expecting radar approach to let me know about the T birds proximity. I forgot that they also fly VFR, so out of the clear blue, when all is quiet in the tower, I hear a voice blast over the radio: "Randolph Tower, Thunderbird 5!" It scared the s**t out of me and I jumped two feet off the chair. The other controllers laughed all day and wouldn't let me forget it. Anyway, two of my favorite aircraft are the SR-71 Blackbird and the B-58 Hustler. What's your favorite?

afthunderbirds6 karma

TB 5 is a sneaky guy (although this year, TB6 does the sneak pass). I guess I sit in the extremes for favorites. I would love to fly a P-51. I look at that era and a generation before it as a golden age for the purist fighter pilot. I also envy the supreme confidence and performance a 5th generation fighter pilot must have at his disposal. But if I only get one flight, I'll take a fini in the worlds most versitile self-escort interdiction platform, the Strike Eagle.

buffinplunts5 karma

What was the moment in your life that made you decide to become a pilot?

afthunderbirds5 karma

Growing up, I have pretty much always had an interest in aviation. I think I was in middle school, when I realized that I wanted to go to the Air Force Academy and fly. :) After some hard work on my part, flying became a reality for me.

B-LOC3 karma

Thanks for doing this for us, Cooter!

  1. What makes flying slot different from the other positions? What particular challenges does a slot pilot face that no other TBird has to worry about?

  2. How has this path made your family stronger? Do you have any pieces of advice for aspiring AF pilots to balance being a husband & father as well as a pilot?

  3. What airframe did you like best through your training? I know you said T38s won't be my favorite, but what about 15's? Will you go back to flying F-15s after your tour with the Thunderbird team is over?

Again, thanks for doing this!

afthunderbirds3 karma

B-LOC, thanks for the question! Don't tell the others, but the biggest difference is that Slot is the best position position on the team. I kid a little, but I find the most challenging parts of the position compared to the other positions (keep in mind I've never flown in any other position) are flying the formation take-off and flying at the end of trail/echelon. The formation take-off was a challenge to learn because even though we train to those throughout our careers, we don't do it with 4 aircraft. The size of the F-16 puts my wing over the end of the runway and 3 feet from number 3. Not a lot of room! Trail and echelon formations are a challenge because I'm flying off someone, who is flying off someone, who is flying off someone. There tends to be a lot of movement and we aren't very far from one another! As this is my first year on the team, I haven't found out how the travel will truly affect my family. I can say though, that communication, particularly of expectations, is the key to staying happy at home. We've done enough deployments in the Dougherty house to prove that! I've been blessed to fly the F15E for the better part of my career. For me, it will always have a special place. The F16 is a blast to fly and the capability of 5th gen is awe inspiring. I truthfully don't know what the future holds for my next aircraft, but I'd gladly fly any fighter the Air Force will let me.

UnEntitled3 karma

What was the closest moment you came to a serious incident/death?

FSXTB5Dirty2 karma

Never fails....always someone who asks that.

UnEntitled1 karma

I had a feeling I would get that response from someone.

afthunderbirds3 karma

Its a great question. I've been very fortunate in my flying career to avoid serious accident. But like driving, though I haven't been in a serious accident, I've had a few moments where I questioned the meaning of life...

In the F-15E, nothing stands out as being a really close call. In the TBirds, its been the same, but I had one or two instances where I puckered up a bit because I got closer than I was supposed to. One was the Echelon PIR, where I let a bit of closer move me too close to #3 and one was the arrowhead loop where a similar thing happened. The cool part about this team though is they leave more space between aircraft during training until proficiency allows us to get closer. Now that I have those experiences under my belt, I feel well prepared not to let it happen again!


Thank you for serving our country, and happy early Father's day. I wanted to ask if you ever engaged in airiel warfare with other planes, or if your main fear was the missiles fired from the ground.

afthunderbirds5 karma

And thanks for your support!!!

I've only ever practiced fighting other airplanes, to include just about everything in the USAF, RAF Harriers and Jags, and Bulgarian MiG-29s. Your question about which I'd rather fight, a plane or a SAM, it depends on the threat. But generally speaking, I'll take my US training and US equipment against an enemy's training and his equipment over fighting a surface to air missile any day!

Imperial_puppy3 karma

How do you train for stunts? I'm familiar with aircraft simulators, so do you use those to practice dangerous stunts and then move on to the real thing? Because I can't imagine you'd be allowed to "work it out in the air" kind of thing, with expensive hardware, and lives on the line.

Thanks for the AMA!

afthunderbirds3 karma

You're welcome.

The team has a training syllabus focused on safely teaching all the new guys how to learn the maneuvers. It takes several months and 70-100 sorties. Believe it or not, there aren't any simulators. When you are introduced to new maneuvers, you will fly in a D-model (two-seat F-16) with the pilot you are replacing. You are right though. We don't work it out in the air. We spend a ton of time briefing, instructing, "chairflying" or visualizing and debriefing before we ever get in a jet!

dartmanx3 karma

What is your opinion of the common stereotype of the fighter pilot (i.e. egotistic, etc)?

afthunderbirds7 karma

I don't think you can qualify any group of people with a particular personality trait. But I will tell you this. In my opinion, AF fighter pilots are taught to have a certain degree of pride in what they do. They are taught this because failure in doing their job could cost them their lives, could cost there squadron mate their lives, and could cost our country an airplane or a war. "Do better next time" might not cut it if there isn't a next time. You are taught to want to be the best so you can do your job and keep good people alive. I think some people take this mentality into other aspects of their lives and potentially reinforce that stereotype, but I don't think its fair to qualify every fighter guy for that!

SeeLowGreen2 karma

A lot of the RedBull Air Race pilots are former airforce pilots from around the world, former test pilots, so forth and so on. After your airforce career do you ever see yourself in a RedBull cockpit racing?

Ps. Pilots kick ass, thanks for this AMA

afthunderbirds1 karma

An foreign exchange instructor of mine in the F15E, Matt Hall is / was a huge Air Race pilot. There's an awesome video out there of him smacking a wing on the water in the UK during a race.

I think air racing would be awesome. To be honest, I'm a huge fan of nearly every aspect of aviation. I don't see myself becoming an air race pilot but that's only because there's 24 hours in a day. I'm working on that problem though!

branflakes1264932 karma

I've seen the Thunderbirds perform in Arkansas several times since I was younger. Every time I see the show it gets more awesome. What is your favorite stunt to perform? (And is it because of the adrenaline rush, the skill required, etc.?)

afthunderbirds3 karma

I anxiously await the bomb burst every time we fly. It's fun to fly, a bit of a rush, a tough mental problem (lots of math done quickly), and an awesome team exercise. We debrief everyday watching the video taken from the ground, and when we get to the bomb burst, the room erupts if we all make the "hit" just right. It's really tough to get it right, and the challenge keeps us on our toes!

branflakes1264931 karma

That's really cool! You mentioned it being a "tough mental problem." What sort of math do you have to use during that maneuver?

afthunderbirds2 karma

Most of the math involves calculations for wind corrections or airspeed deviations to correct for errors. The leader will call out ranges from the "hit" and if we miss those, we will slow down/increase our speed or modify our flight path so we all hit the same spot (nearly) at the same time.

Anuglyman2 karma

What are you guys doing for the rest of the year? I would imagine being grounded for shows leads to an excessive amount of downtime and games of spades.

afthunderbirds3 karma

No cards... We've actually stayed busy trying to do all the other things we believe are a huge part of our mission. We've done any number of school and hospital visits, community outreach events, base improvement initiatives, pilot proficiency events (sims, academics, practice launches etc.). We keep a full schedule!

honey_I_shot_the_kid2 karma


afthunderbirds2 karma

  1. Guys I've talked to say that Indian pilots are sharp, but I've never fought them.
  2. The time I spent working with the Bulgarian Air Force near Plovdiv Bulgaria was one of the most eye-opening, exciting, fun experiences of my AF career. In short, I had an experience every day that topped my "best" AF experience. And that lasted 2 weeks.

manwolfchild2 karma

Do you ever get nervous?

afthunderbirds2 karma

Yes, but like anything, it gets better every time we do it!

SaltForYourWounds2 karma

Not really a question, but Lt Col Steve Horton is my Group commander and was my OSS commander, former Thunderbird in Slot 4. Thanks for doing what you do!

afthunderbirds1 karma

I had the pleasure of corresponding with Lt Col Horton when I found out I would be slot for this year's team. He had awesome advice that went a long way to getting me through the training season!

philter4512 karma

What did it feel like the first time you went supersonic? I bet that was just a huge rush.

afthunderbirds4 karma

Believe it or not, kind of anti-climatic. It was a T-38 in 2003. The altimeter bounced a little (as the mach wave affected the pitot-static system). That's it.

Now flying at 100' during Weapons School in an F-15E at 600+ MPH. That's a rush!

ilyaaf2 karma

What is your favorite story you have of flying?

Also, just wanted to say you guys put on a good show. I watched the Thunderbirds about ten years ago in Wichita. It was awesome, and still can remember it to this day.

afthunderbirds1 karma

Sorry ilyaaf, I've got to run. I've had so many awesome experiences flying in the USAF, I struggle to settle on a favorite... This Team has brought a few new favorites though!

lAmShocked2 karma

Cheyenne Frontier Days is going to miss you this year.

afthunderbirds2 karma

We will miss you too!

Party_Liquor2 karma

So, if you guys walk into a bar after a show and the blue angels just happen to be there also do you guys rumble?

EDIT: Go Army!

afthunderbirds3 karma

Ha, I went to West Point for a semester, so I've got a little Army training under my belt!

And no, those guys are great!

360walkaway2 karma

What's the Highway like?

afthunderbirds1 karma

Tell me more. Do you mean highway as a metaphor for life? I'm just kidding, but I really don't understand the question.

hammernanvil2 karma

All I think most of us regular Joe 12-pack guys have to go on, as far as imagining what it is that modern fighter pilots do, are the movies, such as Top Gun or Iron Eagle. Which do you prefer as a movie, and which has more truthiness?

I guess there was also Stealth, but I haven't seen that.

afthunderbirds1 karma

Top Gun and there are elements of truth in both it and Iron Eagle, but more Hollywood stretches than truth. I would look elsewhere for learning what it's really like to fly in the USAF. A few years back, someone put out a IMAX movie based on Red Flag that I thought was fairly interesting and reasonably realistic.

sbaat1 karma

Good Afternoon Maj Dougherty, do you get any special perks from being a pilot for the Thunderbirds or do you still have to abide by the same standards as a normal USAF pilot? Thank you sir.

afthunderbirds2 karma

No special perks... We follow the same AFIs that impact every other Airmen. And truthfully, that's the point. We hope to represent all those folks and all the amazing, selfless things they are doing every day!

disparaged1 karma

What is the F-16 like to fly, compared to other airframes you've piloted?

afthunderbirds1 karma

Nimble, quick and slightly quirky...

chazzeromus1 karma

Top Gun?

afthunderbirds1 karma

Love it.

Pookies271 karma

How long do you have to wait after eating before performing or practicing? Is their a meal that tastes "as good coming up as it did going down" our do you have an iron stomach?

afthunderbirds2 karma

Airsickness typically isn't a problem for guys with the amount of flight time that our pilots have. We have folks eat right before going to fly, or eat while flying if we have a long cross-country deployment.

chocki3051 karma

What type of punishment is given out when someone says "Thunderbirds are go!"

afthunderbirds1 karma

I'm not sure what you mean...

smokey_sunrise1 karma

I was there when the Thunderbird crashed at MT Home, how did that change your safety procedures? I thought the fireball was part of the show for a split second until I saw the nose cone rolling.

afthunderbirds2 karma

After the crash, there were multiple changes made to communication procedures as well as avionics inputs. That incident, though very unfortunate, is a testament to the airshow system in terms of safety. All of our maneuvers are executed in an aerobatic box, an area away from the crowd such that any accident would likely not cause injury to spectators.

rerational1 karma

What was it like to graduate from one of the greatest classes at USAFA?

No Limits!

Proud but also realize I feel like a dope as I type on my computer avoiding work while one of my classmates is doing an AMA....Damn RIFs

afthunderbirds2 karma

No limits! Glad to hear from an '02er. RTB!

Mackinstyle1 karma

What's the lowest elevation youve ever started at for a Split S?

afthunderbirds2 karma

By our regulation, I have to be above 5500' AGL to do the split S rejoin from the bomb burst. I've never been lower so 5500'.

FSXTB5Dirty1 karma

First off, thank you Maj for your service and time here with us today. I have a question from our No.4 pilot that couldn't make it here today. He wants to know if during the Diamond PIR, do you make any position changes to make sure the diamond keeps its shape when viewed by the crowd?

afthunderbirds2 karma

Thank you for your question. No, typically I don't have to make any position changes to make sure the diamond keeps its shape.

afthunderbirds1 karma

Sorry, I just reread your question and realized I didn't fully understand it the first time. I do cheat a bit. I move a few feet right of center. To do this and not hit #3, I have to move a little deeper than normal too. After we pass the crowd, I will move back towards the center. When 3 sees me move, she will start her transition back to a normal diamond position. Sorry I messed up the first time!

FSXTB5Dirty1 karma

Awesome. We all know we'd like to see you guys/gals flying, but it has been great to see you all engaged more with the public. What has been your most rewarding experience so far with that?

afthunderbirds2 karma

Nice question. I feel like I planted you to ask it!

I have a soft spot for those I think haven't had the same opportunities I have. Every one of the Make-a-Wish events I've attended, where we get a chance to hang out and talk aerial demonstration with folks that love watching it, I've enjoyed immensely. But I could go on for hours. A hospital visit in Miami, a special olympics event in Vegas, a Las Vegas Rescue Mission dinner, and the list goes on. People are amazing, kind, and have a lot of interesting stuff to say. This job just gives me an easy way of starting a conversation!

FSXTB5Dirty1 karma

How fast do you usually have to push it on the rejoin of the HBB after the cross? Must take a lot of practice to race back there for the rejoin and then hit the brakes and make your pull to rejoin with Boss and not overshoot.....one of our favorite parts of the show!

afthunderbirds1 karma

You're telling me!

That rejoin was troubling for me early in training season, because I was pulling way too many Gs (I actually over-Gd once; 9.5 pulled). It got pretty good by the end though...

We try to make the "hit" at 450 knots ground (500+ mph). After the hit, I select calibrated airspeed and max AB. I will normally pull 7.5 Gs in the Immelman to inverted. I accelerate to 400+ KCAS for the join. Ideally, I join at 400-450 KCAS and only pull 7ish Gs for the join. That's my favorite part of the show!

ksjayhawk1 karma

Are the f16s you fly structurally modified to withstand higher G forces than regular combat jets?

afthunderbirds2 karma

Nope. Our aircraft are USAF F-16s that had a few modifications and a cool paint job. Our jets could fight in combat fairly quickly if required. The only major modification of our jets is removal of the M61A1 Gatling for our smoke system. The other stuff is small cockpit changes.

friedrice50051 karma

Do you guys interact with the Navy's Blue Angels at all? If so, is it like a cheesy 80s action flick where both sides are too cool to like each other?

afthunderbirds2 karma

More like West Side Story... Just kidding. Though I haven't had the chance, there is a long history of exchange between the Teams to aid in learning from one another. The exchanges are typically just a few of the second year pilots for a week or so. This year it didn't work out.

As you might expect, there is also a fun, friendly rivalry between the two teams. But I'll be the first to admit... that I love the Blues show and I think they do an amazing job! You heard it here first!

Mackinstyle1 karma

Ever think its kind of insane to be doing aerobatics in such huge jets? I see our Snowbirds often and think that's crazy... Then there's you maniacs who do it all in much less nimble fighter jets.

afthunderbirds2 karma

I don't, to be honest. Formation flying is done in all manner of airplanes. With enough practice, we are able to get pretty close and the performance of the PW229 motors leave a big safety margin for the vertical maneuvers...

redditerate1 karma

Thundercats (the 80s cartoon), or Thunderhorse (the Dethklok song)?

afthunderbirds2 karma

I was a big Thundercats fan growing up, so I'd say the former. That said, the Thunderbirds name has a cool bit of history about it that I've come to appreciate.

bigbang57661 karma

Which trick/maneuver makes you the most nervous? (If there is one in particular)

afthunderbirds2 karma

I don't get very nervous during maneuvers anymore, but if I wore a heart rate monitor, I'd bet my heart rate goes up most during the bomb burst. I'm always hoping for a good "hit" and the rejoin has a bit of fun competition about it between the diamond pilots (last one in buys a coke!).

Samzflow1 karma

In your various stages of pilot training how much do you get to learn about the engineering and design behind your aircraft? Would you ever be in the position to stay behind and use your knowledge to help the team of mechanics and engineers fix and prep your plane for its next flight?

afthunderbirds1 karma

Most training is limited to operating / flying. I had a core aerodynamics class at the USAFA as well as a thermodynamics class. Thank goodness we have an unbelievable cadre of maintenance guys that could redesign the digital flight controls with paperclips and duct tape.

Muchuchu0 karma

Hello Major,

I currently go to a Federal Service Academy and will hopefully graduate next summer. I believe the whole 4th class system is screwed up and although it has been a tradition for training officers in the military for years, needs to be totally revamped. I say this as a current student of course, so I would like your thoughts on the system as a successful graduate.

afthunderbirds2 karma

I see merit in your comments. When I saw what West Point did with their 4th classmen during my semester there, I too saw a system that did well to teach people how to lead. I thought they were doing better for their upper class cadets, even if it was "easier" for their young guys. I would just caution you. My experience is that most systems that have endured that long have at least some degree of merit, even if parts have become antiquated. An open-mind and couple smart, innovative folks, and the system can always improve. There are very few systems anywhere that can't stand to improve at least some!

Rapistsmurf-2 karma

With the Reno air race crash and the danger of flying large fuel filled chunks of metal in dangerous ways over massive crowds, in your estimation; how many crashes do you think it will take before people understand these things are not toys or forms of entertainment?

Ball park figure.

afthunderbirds6 karma

Nice! Inflammatory and leading... I'm ready though and appreciate the tough question.

First, I disagree that aircraft and aviation can't be forms of entertainment. Cars are both for travel and entertainment. Boats too! It's incumbent upon those who govern it and those who fly to do it safely. In the Tbirds, safety is a first priority. A necessity. A requirement. The FAA also has very strict guidelines that we follow to a T to ensure airshows stay as safe as possible. Though I am not familiar with how air races manage safety, I am certain that the pilots and the governing bodies keep spectator and operator safety as a primary concern. It's bad business to do otherwise.

underdabridge-5 karma

Hi, Major Dougherty, do your strings ever get tangled when you try to get dressed in the morning? Does your lack of facial expression impact your day to day discussions with the non-marionette community?

afthunderbirds2 karma

Awesome, I get the previous message now. I think I'm a fun guy. Apparently you don't?

becausefuckyou_-6 karma

Do your strings ever get tangled in other Thunderbird's strings?

afthunderbirds2 karma