What did your mom do today? Maj. Caroline Jensen, the married mother of a 4-year-old son, flew her Block 52 F-16 Fighting Falcon jet from Las Vegas to Salinas in 45 minutes on Thursday at an average speed of about 480 mph.
The Iraq combat veteran is one of eight U.S. Air Force fighter pilots who will fly with the Thunderbirds on Saturday and Sunday at the California International Airshow in Salinas, performing maneuvers in four- and six-plane formations in which the wings of each jet are separated by about 2½ feet.
"We've had a lot of other moms with the team in support roles, but I'm actually the first mom to fly for the Thunderbirds," said Jensen, 37, who became a commissioned officer 14 years ago on her wedding day. "I get a lot of attention for that reason, but to me it's not a big deal because of all the women who came before me and cleared the way for me to become a fighter pilot, not a female fighter pilot."
Jensen is Thunderbird No. 3, meaning she flies at the right wing of the lead aircraft in the team's diamond formation. The Thunderbirds also perform in a six-jet delta formation.
"It's pretty amazing to be part of this team and represent the 400,000 men and women who are working hard every day as members of the United States Air Force," said Jensen, a Wisconsin native. "What we do at an air show brings the precision and the pride that we deploy during combat missions to a visible presentation that is entertaining for the public."
Jensen is the daughter of a Vietnam veteran and the granddaughter of a World War II veteran, a heritage that instilled in her a strong sense of patriotism, she said. She set a goal to go to the Air Force Academy and become a fighter pilot at age 13 after watching the Thunderbirds perform at an air show.
"I was one of 36 pilots who applied to become one of the Thunderbirds in a year when there were two openings for a pilot and one for a narrator position (a pilot who flies an advance plane)," she said.
Those three dozen applicants were narrowed to 12 who accompanied the Thunderbirds to an air show as observers, interacting and interviewing with team members. She was one of six finalists chosen to attend another air show with the team, and was one of three to become Thunderbirds.
"I found out unofficially in May of last year," she said. "It was a special day because I happened to be on vacation with my family at the time, and it was the day before my anniversary."
Jensen, who flew combat missions in Iraq for six months in 2007 and 2008, said the most impressive thing about the F-16 Fighting Falcon is its ability to engage the afterburners and accelerate while flying straight up.
F-16 pilots routinely endure gravitational pull of up to 7Gs.
"I guess if seven people your size were sitting on your lap, that's how it feels to pull 7Gs," she said. "I'm actually pretty used to it. We maintain a high level of fitness, nutrition and hydration, because when you least expect it would be when the Gs would really bother you."
Tickets for the air show can be purchased in advance until 5 p.m. Friday by calling 1-888-845-SHOW, or at Salinas Municipal Airport, home of the airshow.
Dennis Taylor can be reached at 646-4344 or firstname.lastname@example.org.