Air Force Capt. Will Graeff has been in Southwestern Pennsylvania before.
“One of my best friends from college is from Pittsburgh, so I’ve been to the Pittsburgh area,” the Seminole, Fla., resident said.
He arrived in the Latrobe area for the first time Thursday, touching down in the F-16 jet he flies alongside the five other pilots of the Air Force Thunderbirds demonstration team.
The team will execute aerobatic maneuvers Saturday and Sunday as it headlines the Shop ’n Save Westmoreland County Airshow at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Unity.
Aerial acts begin at 10:30 a.m. each day. Gates open at 7:30 a.m.
“I’m definitely looking forward to getting to know Latrobe,” Graeff said. He did know enough about the town to seek guidance on its variable pronunciation -- Luh-trobe or Lay-trobe?
While he’s on the ground at a show site, Graeff enjoys meeting local families and connecting with veterans.
“It’s a lot of fun being able to get out in the crowd, talking to the kids,” he said. “I try to inspire them to join the military, or just become better versions of themselves.”
When he’s up in the air with the Thunderbirds, Graeff flies the No. 2 jet, in the left wing position of the team’s intricate, often close, formations. He backs up the team leader, confirming the series of pre-planned maneuvers as the Thunderbirds transition from one to the next.
One of Graeff’s favorite maneuvers is known as the “Trail to Diamond Cloverloop.”
“We’ll be in the trail formation, stacked on top of each other with 3 feet of space between each jet,” he explained. “We’ll start to climb to get into a loop. Then, when we hit 70 degrees, just before we hit vertical, we will move into our diamond formation and complete the loop.”
In another of the team’s eye-catching maneuvers, the “Delta Burst,” Graeff said, “All six jets come together toward the crowd, and we will all burst into separate directions.”
Graeff is in the first year of a two-year stint with the Thunderbirds. It’s just the latest phase of an Air Force career in which he’s amassed roughly 1,500 hours of flight time, including about 220 hours on combat missions in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, “protecting lives on the ground,” he said.
Though there’s no enemy to contend with, training for and flying in airshows is not without hazards. The Thunderbirds withdrew from some shows earlier in the season and regrouped after the team’s No. 4 pilot, Maj. Stephen “Cajun” Del Bagno, was killed April 4, when his jet went down over the Nevada Test and Training Range.
A report on an investigation into the accident has yet to be released, but an internal safety probe was completed and allowed the Thunderbirds to return to the skies, according to Maj. Ray Geoffroy, the team’s public affairs officer. Maj. Nick Krajicek of West Point, Neb., who has logged more than 4,200 hours as a military pilot and is in his third season with the Thunderbirds, stepped into the team’s No. 4 position.
“The recovery process obviously was tough,” Graeff said. “We took time for ourselves and our families to mourn with Cajun’s family. Once that mourning process was over, we delved back into our operating procedures, making sure everything we were doing was perfectly safe.
As the Thunderbirds complete their high-flying routines above the Arnold Palmer airport, they’ll have a bird’s-eye view of Steelers training camp, under way just down the road at Saint Vincent College.
With family who live north of Philadelphia, Graeff admitted he’s an Eagles fan.
“I know that might get me in trouble here,” he said.
Visit palmerairport.com for air show details and tickets.