A Thunderous Return: USAF Thunderbirds Commander returns to where it all started

  • Published
  • By Adam Bowles
  • 412th Test Wing Public Affairs

The U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, the Thunderbirds, performs precision aerial maneuvers demonstrating the capabilities of Air Force high performance aircraft to people throughout the world. Being a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School, Lt. Col. Justin Elliott, USAF Thunderbirds Commander, returns with his team to Edwards Air Force Base to perform at the 2022 Aerospace Valley Air Show using the skills he learned where he was previously a student.

"This is about as close to flight test since what I have done in the Air Force believe it or not," Lt. Col. Elliott said. "I use very much all the skill sets that Test Pilot School taught me here as the Thunderbirds lead. A lot of the skills that I have picked up at Test Pilot School are applying very directly to what I am doing as Thunderbird 1."

The Aerospace Valley Open House, Air Show, and STEM Expo returned to Edwards Air Force Base after a 13 year hiatus that welcomed over 120,000 attendees to get a unique look at the flight test mission here at Edwards.

"TPS is really the bedrock of test for the United States Air Force," Lt. Col. David Schmitt, Commander, 411th Flight Test Squadron explained. "This is where all the test pilots and flight test engineers for the Air Force get their first education into what is developmental test, how to take an aircraft that has never flown before and do a safe nautical approach to deliver that capability to the warfighter fastest."

According to Lt. Col. Schmitt, Lt. Col. Elliott achieved a lot of firsts at his time at Test Pilot School almost 10 years ago.

"He's got the distinction in what we call as a dual patch," Lt. Col. Schmitt said. "He is a U.S. Air Force Weapons School graduate as well as a Test Pilot School graduate which based on timing for pilots going through those programs is incredibly challenging and rare."

While performing precision aerial maneuvers with his Thunderbirds team over Edwards Air Force Base, some of Lt. Col. Elliot's previous instructors were close by to witness their previous student's incredible journey in flight test become a reality with the USAF Thunderbirds.

"Astro was my student in 2015," Col. Jose Gutierrez, Commander, Electronic Warfare Group said. "He stood above the rest in terms of his personality and his charisma. He was a great guy to work with. Just his willingness and eagerness to get things done was just impressive to watch and I was really proud to see his name attached to the Thunderbirds especially as the Commander."

With all of his accomplishments, Lt. Col. Elliot has a message to current students and future graduates of the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School.

"Have fun," Elliot said. "You will appreciate being a graduate from the Test Pilot School more every day that Test Pilot School passes and I mean that from the bottom of my heart. From the time I was brand new as a student, I didn't know what the future would hold for me. Now, looking back at it 8 years later, it has been better every year and I absolutely enjoy it. The sky is not even the limit for Test Pilot School grads."

To learn more about the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School you can visit their website.