With a father who fought in the Vietnam War and a grandfather who was a World War II soldier, U.S. Air Force Maj. Caroline Jensen said she always had a feeling she would be in the military someday as well.
“I grew up with a really strong sense of patriotism and the knowledge that there are people out there who serve so we can live with the freedoms that we have,” the 37-year-old native of River Falls, Wis., said Thursday.
But it took a trip to an air show when she was 13 years old to determine what her flight path would be.
“I knew I wanted to be a fighter pilot,” she said. “I wanted to go to the Air Force Academy, and I was fortunate enough to achieve the goals of being here and doing this job, going to all these shows and all that traveling.”
She and other U.S. Air Force Thunderbird pilots will keep that tradition at this weekend’s Quad-City Air Show, taking place Saturday and Sunday at the Davenport Municipal Airport. Jensen is 10 months into her two-year assignment that includes 60 demonstration appearances in 33 different locations and a travel schedule filling 220 days a year.
“We are on the road till mid-November. Then we go in and train next year’s team and we’re on the road again starting in about April,” Jensen said on the tarmac at Elliott Aviation on the grounds of the Quad-City International Airport in Moline.
Jensen is a bit nonchalant about being only the third female pilot in the history of the Thunderbirds. Although women began training with the squadron in 1974, the first woman to officially fly with the team was in 2006.
“People are still kind of surprised to see women, but the Air Force is 20 percent female and I really don’t feel different than my male counterparts,” she said. “I have not felt any pressure one way or another being female. I just go out and do my best job because of who I am and not my gender.”
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Traditionally a mid-June fixture on the event schedule in the Quad-Cities, the air show has moved to Labor Day weekend this year. When he announced the schedule change in January, show president Ken Hopper said it was well-received by committees, sponsors and fans.
The move was primarily aimed at getting the Thunderbirds for their eighth appearance at the annual air show, but their first since 2007.
“In the air show industry, if you have the opportunity to host the (U.S. Navy) Blue Angels or the Thunderbirds, you do it,” Hopper said in a January interview. “It’s kind of like a golf tournament getting the chance to bring in Arnold Palmer or Jack Nicklaus. You do what you can to have them.”