The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds flight demonstration team flew over the Magic Kingdom on Thursday in advance of National Veterans and Military Families Month, which is held in November. We had the honor of interviewing two of the pilots: Maj. Zane Taylor (Thunderbird 4) – the Slot pilot, and Lt. Col. Justin Elliott (Thunderbird 1), who is the Commander.
The interviews are in full on our video below of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds Magic Kingdom flyover. Taylor is an Orlando native and a Disney fan to boot.
I asked Maj. Taylor what it meant to fly over Cinderella Castle. He had only four more flights to go as a Thunderbird at that time. He answered, “It’s awesome. Just north of here is where I learned to fly. I used to fly over my parents’ house in a tiny little single engine airplane, and they’d come out and wave. And now today I flew over that exact same spot in an F-16 on the way to fly over Cinderella Castle”.
Maj. Zane Taylor, Photo by Denise Preskitt
Maj. Taylor grew up going to the Disney parks, both parents worked for the Walt Disney Company. His father is Rich Taylor, who was Vice President of Live Entertainment and Costuming when he retired in 2007. Both his parents were on hand to watch the flyover. He said it “feels like home” when he’s in the park, “because they used to drop me and my brother off and we’d play all day at Disney and then come home exhausted”.
I asked Maj. Taylor he knew he wanted to be a Thunderbird pilot. He answered, “I saw the Thunderbirds when I was five years old here in Central Florida, and it just blew my mind. I wanted to fly fighters ever since.” He wasn’t thinking along the way that he wanted to be a Thunderbird, however. “It wasn’t until I was a flight instructor and I was stationed in New Mexico that I was starting to think, like, man, that would be cool if I went back and applied for the Thunderbirds and got on, and then gave the next generation that same experience that I had had”.
Maj. Taylor said that the flyovers are “kind of a secondary mission for us”. He continued, “If you really want to see the crazy stuff, then you’ve got to come to the air shows”.
Photo by Denise Preskitt
Lt. Col. Justin Elliott called flying over Walt Disney World “quite a rare honor” when I asked how often he’s had the opportunity – the answer? Just once. He continued, “The exposure that we get here is second to none. It’s international”.
Lt. Col. Elliott talked about when he knew that he wanted to be a pilot for the Thunderbirds. “I knew I wanted to be an Air Force Pilot when I was very, very young after seeing the Thunderbirds.” He then added, “As far as being on the actual team, that’s something that you do much, much later in life. It really wasn’t until last year when I applied for the team that it was a goal I could actually achieve”.
Lt. Col. Justin Elliott, Photo by Denise Preskitt
How long does it take to get to the point where they are able to conduct flyovers? Lt. Col. Elliott said, “Each job on this team – on the flying side – takes about 120 flights in a row. That’s twice a day, every day through the weekends for four months to get to the point where you’re able to do this mission.”
Photo by Denise Preskitt
The one thing I was surprised at during an off-camera conversation was that the pilots can see the crowd below, even while flying 400 miles per hour above in just a few seconds. And also that the Thunderbirds don’t conduct a lot of flyovers in a year. Lt. Col. Elliot mentioned that, “we only do usually three to four flyovers in a year, because we are a demonstration team. Our primary mission is to put on that 37-minute choreographed air show that no one else on the planet can do. But for the flyovers, we do the big ones: Daytona, Indy, Super Bowl – and Disney World”.
Thank you to Maj. Zane Taylor and Lt. Col. Justin Elliott for taking time to talk to us.