Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Veteran Voices: Williamsburg Native Recalls Time as Air Force Thunderbird

Anthony “Tony” Mulhare after a celebrity flight with Stephen Colbert. (Tony Mulhare)

WILLIAMSBURG — Anthony “Tony” Mulhare grew up around fighter jets while his dad enjoyed a career in the U.S. Air Force, and thanks to that experience, he knew what he wanted to do from a young age.

“My dad was a fighter pilot so when I was a little kid, he would take me around the airplanes and the flying squadron. He’d take me to the range and I’d get to see the passes. It was things going really fast and really low to the ground, it was real loud. As a three- or four-year-old little boy, I couldn’t help but be impressed,” Mulhare said.

The love and passion his father had for his job rubbed off on young Tony. In 1986, the elder Mulhare was killed in a flying accident. The Air Force rallied around the Mulhare family, and Tony knew he wanted to be a part of that camaraderie.

A 1991 graduate of Lafayette High School, Mulhare went off to Colorado to join the United States Air Force Academy. He graduated in 1995 with a BS in Military History. In the Air Force, he served as an Aide to Lt. Gen. David J McCloud, an F-16 instructor pilot, and a T-38 instructor pilot. Mulhare also served as Commander of the 80th Operations Support Squadron at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas.

Anthony Mulhare in the cockpit. (Tony Mulhare)

But being a part of the Air Force Thunderbirds was not originally in his plans. He knew there was a lengthy application process but he took a shot and applied anyway. He was not accepted on his first attempt, but the second time was the charm.

“I was lucky enough to be picked up as the advance pilot and narrator, which is the number eight position on the team. It was the right time in my career to apply for something like the Air Force Thunderbirds and it worked out in my favor,” Mulhare said.

Call sign Split, an acronym, Spouse Pickles Left in Tears, has special meaning to Mulhare.

“I went to a squadron party, the night that I got my name, and it was the day that my first child was born. Everyone was really surprised to see me at the party because they thought I’d be at the hospital still. Fighter pilot stories only have to be 10% truth in order to be considered gospel truth. The truth is that I did in fact go to a squadron party the night my child was born, the part they don’t tell you is that my wife went into labor two and a half days prior to the party. She actually kicked me out of the hospital so that she could get some sleep,” Mulhare said.

As the advance pilot with the Thunderbirds, Mulhare was often traveling a day ahead of the rest of the team and set up everything on the ground. During shows, he’d be narrating from the ground. As part of his job, Mulhare often flew the two-seater jet.

“When I would show up at the base or the airport, I’d have my crew chief with me. I got to know those guys really well. They were the guys who would take care of our airplanes and I got the opportunity to teach them to fly a little bit. I still have very strong friendships with them. We went all over the country, just the group of us,” Mulhare said.

Mulhare before flying NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. (Tony Mulhare)

His job duties also included flying during the practice sessions, where he’d get to fly a local newsperson or weatherperson. Occasionally, he flew big names, including NFL Commissioner Roger Goddell, television star Stephen Colbert, NFL player Rod Woodson, UFC Fighter B.J. Penn, and NASCAR’s Jamie McMurray.

In addition to flying big names, Mulhare and the Thunderbirds also hosted Make-A-Wish Foundation families in each city they visited.

The primary mission of the Air Force Thunderbirds is to recruit for the Air Force. By showing off the jets and what they are capable of, the Thunderbirds hope to inspire the next generation of Air Force fighter pilots.

“Being a Thunderbird was a great way for me to give back to all of the blessings and benefits that the Air Force has given me in my life. To be somebody that was able to influence someone to go pursue something that was meaningful to me and really directed my entire life, it was a great way for me to give back to the next generation,” Mulhare said.

Mulhare still takes the skies daily. Now a pilot for Southwest Airlines, he carries the honor of being a Thunderbird with him every day.

“It’s such a unique opportunity in your career, it was such a different assignment from anything I ever did. Nobody really cares about Tony Mulhare. I wasn’t a celebrity. You kind of get to borrow a celebrity-like status for the two years that you are on the team. People treat you really well and they are excited to see you when you go places. As soon as you leave the team, nobody cares anymore. During that two years, it was a really cool tour of the whole country. It was very very busy and it’s a lot of work and you are changing time zones all the time, but it was so unique and special.”

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