Lt. Col. Cald­well com­ing home as lead Thun­der­birds pilot

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Marco San­tana

John Cald­well’s am­bi­tion grow­ing up in Cen­tral Florida cer­tainly wasn’t sur­pris­ing. He wanted to be a pilot. His par­ents didn’t put too much stock in it. Af­ter all, doesn’t ev­ery kid want to be a pilot, fire­fighter or po­lice of­fi­cer?

But the Univer­sity High School grad­u­ate has ful­filled that dream — and then some. He will re­turn home as the lead pilot of the elite U.S. Air Force Thun­der­birds at an air show next fall.

“I knew it was achiev­able if I just com­mit­ted my­self to work­ing hard in school, fol­low­ing my pas­sion for avi­a­tion and com­mit­ting my­self to the Air Force,” Lt. Col. Cald­well, 41, said Mon­day in an in­ter­view with the Or­lando Sen­tinel. “It was a pri­or­ity, and I stuck with the goals.”

The Thun­der­birds are the star­ring at­trac­tion for the first air show at Or­lando San­ford In­ter­na­tional Air­port in 26 years. The show will hap­pen Hal­loween week­end next year, Oct. 31 and Nov. 1. So far, the show has sold about 1,250 tick­ets, or­ga­niz­ers said.

When the lead spon­sor Lock­heed Martin made the an­nounce­ment that the Thun­der­birds were com­ing, they did not re­al­ize the lo­cal con­nec­tion, said Michael Rein, a com­pany spokesman who has been lead­ing the show’s or­ga­ni­za­tion.

“When we went into this, we were proud to have the Thun­der­birds com­ing to the show,” he said at a de­fense con­fer­ence in Or­lando on Mon­day. “To find out he was an Or­lando na­tive, I don’t know what cliche to use, but it was an un­be­liev­able co­in­ci­dence.”

By the time the San­ford per­for­mance comes around, Cald­well will be do­ing his fi­nal cou­ple of shows as a Thun­der­bird.

The Air Force lim­its mem­bers of the squadron to two-year stints with the group as a way to fend off fa­tigue and stress on the fam­ily.

But that likely won’t push him out of the spot­light, said his step­fa­ther, Bill Oswald.

“I don’t think John is done do­ing cool stuff,” he said. “He’s ter­rific at what he does and he is a born leader.”

Af­ter one year at the Univer­sity of Cen­tral Florida, Cald­well, whom fam­ily mem­bers call “Johnny Boy,” would move on to at­tend and grad­u­ate from the U.S. Air Force Acad­emy.

Cald­well said the team’s per­for­mance is less risky than many other ac­ro­batic events per­formed by other aerial groups.

But the 66-year-old squadron did suf­fer a tragedy in April 2018.

Maj. Stephen “Ca­jun” Del Bagno died when his F-16 Fight­ing Fal­con crashed dur­ing a test flight, which tem­po­rar­ily grounded the team.

“At the end of the day, what we do is in­her­ently safe,” Cald­well said. “We fly these ma­neu­vers within ex­act pa­ram­e­ters and pre­ci­sion and an in­cred­i­ble amount of dis­ci­pline. If you don’t have these things, it can be a risky en­deavor.”

But that risk is some­thing

Cald­well has got­ten used to, he said.

“For us, be­ing in the mil­i­tary, we have ac­cepted the fact that we de­cided to op­er­ate in an area that might have a more el­e­vated risk than nor­mal civil­ian oc­cu­pa­tions,” he said.

He says be­ing in the cock­pit dur­ing a show brings a wave of emo­tions, from stress to re­lax­ation and ev­ery­thing in be­tween.

Cald­well, who has moved more than a dozen times since grad­u­at­ing high school, ex­pects the San­ford show to be a fun home­com­ing and re­union with friends.

“I al­ways feel like this area is home to me in ways that no place can ever be home be­cause I have had so many ex­pe­ri­ences,” said Cald­well, whose friends saw him lead the Thun­der­birds in a show Nov. 1-2 at Punta Gorda. “When I come back, it’s like I have never been gone.”


Thun­der­birds Com­man­der Lt. Col. John Cald­well talks about his air squadron’s ap­pear­ance in San­ford next fall.

Cald­well made the an­nounce­ment at I/ITSEC, one of the big­gest sim­u­la­tion and train­ing events in the world, held ev­ery year in Or­lando.

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