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Amherst native barnstorms home as Thunderbirds return to Westover Air Show

  • Staff Sgt. Trey Whiteley, an aircraft structural maintainer for the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, cleans an F-16 Fighting Falcon jet Thursday at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Four F-16 Fighting Falcon jet fighters flown by U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds pass overhead Thursday during a media demonstration at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Maj. Ray Geoffroy, public affairs officer for the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, stands at attention while the colors are retired at the end of the day Thursday at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Maj. Ray Geoffroy, public affairs officer for the United States Air Force Thunderbirds, talks alongside an F-16 Fighting Falcon jet July 12, 2018 at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Four F-16 Fighting Falcon jets flown by United States Air Force Thunderbirds pass overhead July 12, 2018 during a media demonstration at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Maj. Nate Hofmann, a pilot for the United States Air Force Thunderbirds, talks alongside an F-16 Fighting Falcon jet July 12, 2018 at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • An F-16 Fighting Falcon jet flown by United States Air Force Thunderbirds passes overhead July 12, 2018 during a media demonstration at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee. Sarah Crosby/Gazette Staff



@BeraDunau
Friday, July 13, 2018

CHICOPEE — After a decade’s absence, America’s ambassadors in blue are returning to Westover Air Force Base — and a local boy is among their number.

The premier aerial demonstration team for the Air Force — the Thunderbirds — consists of six F-16 Fighting Falcon jets, 12 officers, support aircraft, and more than 120 enlisted personnel. The Thunderbirds will perform at the 2018 Great New England Air and Space Show this weekend at Westover.

One of the officers in the Thunderbirds is Maj. Ray Geoffroy. Geoffroy, 32, grew up in Amherst and graduated from Amherst High School and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he was part of the ROTC.

The public affairs officer for the Thunderbirds, he assumed the title of Thunderbird 12 in November. Geoffroy currently lives in Nevada, where the Thunderbirds are based, and he described his excitement at seeing his home region come into view from the C-17 he flew in on.

“I like, ran off the plane,” he said. “I’m really excited to be here.”

The Thunderbirds’ demonstration jets flew in Thursday, and gave a display for local media before landing.

Maj. Nate Hofmann, 34, who currently holds the title of Thunderbird 3, was one of the pilots who performed the high-flying stunts.

Hofmann was originally not eligible to fly because of his eyesight. However, surgery allowed him to fulfill his dreams of becoming a pilot.


If you go

What: Great New Eng land Air and Space Show
Where: Westover Air Force Base, 57 Patriot Ave., Chicopee
When: July 14-15, gates open at 8 a.m.
Featuring: The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, Golden Knights, Team FastTrax, C-5 Galaxy, GEICO Skytypers and more
How much: Free


“Every day’s a gift,” said Hofmann, on getting to fly.

Hofmann also spoke glowingly of the Thunderbird’s role as ambassadors for the Air Force, noting that its membership spans many different career fields.

“We can kind of share a pretty big cross section of what the Air Force does,” said Hofmann.

Geoffroy also spoke about the Thunderbirds helping to close the military-civilian gap.

Hofmann noted that there are no replacements for Thunderbird pilots if one of them gets sick, with the team either flying without them or not flying altogether if it is the leader who goes down. However, he also said that any fighter pilot in the Air Force could become a Thunderbird pilot with the proper training.

Hofmann flies in the Thunderbird’s diamond formation, and cited the high bomb burst as his favorite maneuver.

Officers in the Thunderbirds serve for two years. Hofmann is in his second year, while Geoffroy is in his first.

Geoffroy will narrate for the Thunderbirds at this weekend’s show, a duty he specifically requested for Westover. Geoffroy normally is the backup narrator for the team.

“They were kind enough to give me the opportunity,” said Geoffroy. “Hopefully I don’t blow it.”

He also expressed the hope that his high school theater background would come in handy.

Geoffroy said that he’s told his comrades to head up to at least Amherst and Northampton while they are in the area. He also said that he plans on getting a slice at Antonio’s and eating at Bub’s BBQ this visit.

Geoffroy doesn’t come from a military family, and he said that he joined the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps because of his interest in airplanes.

“While it’s been challenging, it’s never not been fun,” said Geoffroy, of his Air Force service.

Geoffroy has worked in public relations in areas as diverse as Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, to Kabul, Afghanistan, and Tokyo, Japan.

“Every job I got to is a different mission,” he said.

This year’s Great New England Air and Space Show will take place from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday. In addition to the Thunderbirds flying both days, a number of other aerial demonstrations will take place, including from the GEICO Skytypers. Flying demonstrations will begin at 10 a.m. Dozens of planes will be at the base for the event.

As a child, Geoffroy got the experience of seeing the Thunderbirds fly in Massachusetts.

“I absolutely loved it,” he said. “It definitely lit a little bit of a spark in me.”

As for why it’s taken so long for the Thunderbirds to come back to Westover — they were last here in 2008 — Geoffroy said that it had to do with the team’s rotation, which also includes keeping a minimum distance from the Blue Angels, the Navy’s premiere aerial demonstration team.

Col. Scott “Bull” Durham, the wing commander at Westover, will oversee his first Air Show this weekend.

“The team here at Westover is an established team,” he said, saying that it’s all about giving people a job and trusting that they will do it.

Durham said that he expects anywhere from 50,000 tp 500,000 people to show up for the show if the weather holds, admittance to which is free of charge.

“No matter how many come out, we’ve got room for ‘em,” said Durham.

Asked what people should keep in mind who are planning to attend, Durham noted that people should not bring    weapons and that they should bring water, although concessions will be available o n-site. Random security checks will also be done at the gate.

It was also noted that marijuana is prohibited and illegal on the base, despite the drug being legal in Massachusetts, as it is a federal facility.

“Leave the drugs at home,” said Durham. “Get high on the Air Force.”

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.