During the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base’s “Thunder and Lightning Over Arizona” air show this past weekend, pilot Greg ‘Slick’ Aguirre was off again into the wild blue yonder, as the Air Force song goes.
He and his friends in the Desert Rats Warbirds team were among the highlighted performances at the air show. During the two-day open-house event, more than 150,000 spectators watched current and former military pilots show off aircraft, including jets and helicopters. (The Air Force Thunderbirds precision flying team didn;t perform Saturday because of high wind gusts, but performed in full spectacular aerial array on Sunday). The air show also featured a menu of civilian stunt-pilots, descendants of the “barnstormers” who made flying famous in towns throughout America in the early days of aviation.
Here’s a look at pilots with one of the show’s features, the Desert Rats Warbirds demonstration team.
Hurtling, twisting and turning in formation, some demo pilots have taken a long and dangerous path to be able to now do what they call sit back in their airplanes and, basically, show off.
“This is a dream come true,” said Aguirre, a retired Air Force pilot. “To be able to do what I love and also not have someone shooting at me is something I would have never thought I could do back when I was a kid. It gets my blood going.”
Aguirre is one of four pilots in the Desert Rats Warbirds demonstration team. They’re all retired U.S. Air Force pilots out of Luke Air Force Base near Phoenix.
“We’re a team and a close-knit group of guys,” said Mike Lynch, one of the pilots. “You got to be when you’re going to fly that fast that close to one another.”
The Desert Rats crew shows off the Chinese built “Warbird” training aircraft roughly three times a year at air shows at different Southwest Air Force bases. According to the pilots the planes are cheap to maintain.
“Ever since I was little flying a plane is all I ever wanted to do,” said Mike Carter, another in the team. “Get into that cockpit and take off.”
Carter, who went by the call name Beav, flew F-16 attack jets from 1981 to 2001. The former squadron commander still flies for a living — but niw as a commercial pilot for Southwest Airlines.
“Becoming a commercial pilot after you retire is somewhat common,” Carter said. “ You don’t fly nearly as much, but it’s hard to just leave the cockpit and never go back.”
Aguirre joined Southwest Airlines shortly after he retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1991.
“I’ve got a wonderful family, I like to run and clean the gutters and do all that stuff but flying I guess is my only true hobby,” Aguirre said.
Born and raised on the Schilling Air Force base in Salina, Kan in the 1950s, Aguirre’s said his father worked as a mechanic on Continental Airlines jets. He quickly realized that flying jets is what he wanted to.
So like millions of other Americans, Aguirre went into the Army, and went to Vietnam.
“The Army told me I could go from high school to flight school — but you got to go to Vietnam,’” Aguirre said. “So I said ok I’ll take the crapshoot and learn how to fly.”
Though it was easy to get into flight school, becoming a military pilot during the war wasn’t.
While at Fort Wolters in Mineral Walls, Texas Aguirre and 329 other soldiers went through eight weeks of infantry camp, followed by flight school. Out of all those, Aguirre said only about 170 graduated from flight school. But because the rest already had training they were sent to back to infantry training where they were then handed a rifle.
“It was a lot of pressure,” Aguirre said laughing. “I could have never become a pilot but still been sent to Vietnam. Talk about crappy.”
But Aguirre did become a pilot. He flew a UH-1 helicopter, also known as a Huey, during the Vietnam War. He even remembers carrying guys on his aircraft that were washed out of flight school but instead sent to fight on the ground.
Aguirre recalls the danger. Huey pilots were given the nickname Slicks because of the absence of weapons attached to the helicopter. They were aircraft that carried an infantry of five grunts and took them to various locations.
While looking through his iPhone at pictures of himself during Vietnam, Aguirre listed off times when he almost went down in flames, so to speak.
Aguirre had engines explode, fires on the aircraft, engines flame out, and bullets come through his aircraft to name a few.
“It was living a life where you could be dead the next instant,” Aguirre said. “Living a life of adrenalin. But I was doing what I loved. Flying a plane was an adventure. It was every bit as cool as I had dreamed.”
After Vietnam, he used the G.I. Bill for college, and then Air Force training. Has flown everything from F-4 jets to his demo crew’s current Desert Rat Warbirds.
Now living in Scottsdale, Aguirre says he has flown over 25,000 hours, a grand total of almost three years in the skies.
“I’ve flown more than most birds,” Aguirre joked.
“What I love about flying is the focus,” he added. “Every flight is a challenge. And I want to do it the best I can. Whether I’m flying a helicopter, a jet in formation or just flying by myself. I want to be the best. This is what I do, this is who I am.”