Wisconsin native soars with Thunderbirds for first time at Super Bowl on Sunday
Meg Jones, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Published 5:13 p.m. CT Feb. 3, 2019 | Updated 6:29 p.m. CT Feb. 3, 2019
Michelle Curran didn't become interested in flying until college, but she certainly was not afraid of heights growing up in Wisconsin.
"She climbed a tree taller than our house when she was 2," said her father, Bill Curran.
On Sunday, Curran didn't fly really high, but she flew in close formation at 400 mph with five other Thunderbirds, the prestigious Air Force flight demonstration team, at the Super Bowl in Atlanta.
The 31-year-old Medford native is the first female demonstration pilot for the Thunderbirds since 2014. The Super Bowl was the first public appearance for the current team, which is also performing a flyover at the Daytona 500 in two weeks before the show schedule kicks off next month.
Curran, whose call sign is "Mace," flies Thunderbird No. 6, also known as the opposing solo pilot. She demonstrates the capabilities of the F-16 during performances. Her favorite maneuver is the vertical roll — pointing the plane up or down while rolling over.
In an interview posted on the Thunderbirds' website, Curran was asked what it was like to climb into the distinctive red, white and blue Thunderbird jet for the first time.
"I was definitely nervous and excited, but there was so much to learn that is specific to the Thunderbirds that those feelings were overshadowed by the focus needed to keep up with the jet," said Curran.
"There was still definitely a surreal moment, while holding short of the runway, where I was in a bit of disbelief that I had actually been selected and was about to take off for my first flight."
Capt. Michelle Curran is the Opposing Solo Pilot for the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, flying the No. 6 jet.
She is the fifth female pilot and only the second female solo pilot in the 65-year history of the Thunderbirds.
The 2005 Medford High School graduate attended the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, on an ROTC scholarship. She earned a degree in criminal justice in 2009 because she considered becoming a crime scene investigator but also thought it would be cool to become a pilot.
About halfway through her time in ROTC, she was inspired to get her pilot's wings because she wanted to be part of something with a bigger purpose, she said in the website interview, and also because she's a thrill seeker who likes challenges.
At the end of her undergraduate pilot training, she was one of just two in her class of 25 chosen for fighter jets. Curran was assigned to the F-16 Fighting Falcon and spent three years stationed in Japan flying throughout the Pacific. She served a two-month deployment in the skies over Afghanistan in 2016, flying 125 hours in combat and was serving in the 355th Fighter Squadron in Fort Worth, Texas, when she was chosen for one of the coveted spots in the Thunderbirds, who train at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.
Bill Curran said his daughter was encouraged to apply for the Thunderbirds by friends in the Air Force. After going through extensive interviews and testing, she called her parents last summer and excitedly said "you're talking to the newest Thunderbird!"
"We're just bursting with excitement," said Bill Curran.
The Super Bowl was the first time Curran's parents had seen their daughter performing with the Thunderbirds. They plan to travel to Las Vegas, where she recently moved to be near Nellis Air Force Base, early next month to see the Thunderbirds perform a flyover at a NASCAR race.
They also plan, along with a lot of family, to see her when the Thunderbirds fly at the Milwaukee Air & Water Show July 27-28 and an air show in Mankato, Minnesota, in June.