There’s always excitement when the elite Thunderbirds Demonstration Squad roars into Tucson’s Davis-Monthan U.S. Air Force Base for an air show. But this year’s “Thunder and Lightning Over Arizona,” March 23-24, brings a hometown pilot soaring into town for the performance. Maj. Jason Markzon, flying the #8 slot and the squad’s only Jewish pilot, says, “I’m super excited to come home and show off the team, to bring it all back home.”
The Thunderbirds is an Air Combat Command unit of 12 officers, including eight pilots; 90 maintainers; and 28 support crew, performing 30 job specialties. Launched in 1953, the squad originally was based at Luke Air Force Base near Glendale, Arizona, moving to Nellis AFB in Las Vegas in 1956.
Markzon was born and raised in Tucson. He attended Coronado Middle School, becoming a bar mitzvah in 1997 at Congregation Or Chadash, where his parents still attend. Graduating from Canyon Del Oro High School in 2002, he spent his last semester in an Army Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps at Flowing Wells High School, because CDO lacked such a program. “I’d already decided to go into Air Force ROTC in college and wanted to build a military foundation,” he explains.
He attended Arizona State University, graduating with a bachelor of science in aerospace engineering in 2007. Typically, in the junior year of AFROTC, members are selected for a line position for their future Air Force career. Markzon’s dream was a pilot slot. But, as an engineering graduate, he was assigned to developmental engineering at Luke AFB. “I joined the Air Force to see the world, but it was like walking across the street,” he says. Yet, he remained optimistic and set his sights on becoming a flight test engineer, and started private flight school on his own.
“I fell in love with flying,” he recalls. “I try to take control of the things that are in my control and improve things to influence things that are not in my control.” So he kept asking command about pilot opportunities, and in April 2007 got a call from his commander offering a pilot slot. “YES, my inner child was screaming, but I kept my military bearing,” he says. “It was an exciting day for me!”
Markzon commissioned as a second lieutenant and flew sorties for a year in the back seat of F-16s while awaiting pilot training at Laughlin AFB in Texas, which reinforced his love for fighter jets. He received his pilot wings in September 2009, training on T-6s and T-38s. Markzon was assigned to Randolph AFB, also in Texas, to become an instructor pilot. Back to Laughlin AFB, he was a first assistant instructor of pilots, teaching new graduates to fly the T-38. “I love to teach young, impressionable minds how to fly airplanes. Those first things you learn as a pilot stick with you,” he says. While in Texas, Markzon met and married Korynne.
In 2013, he was reassigned to Luke AFB to train on F-16s with the 310 Fighter Squadron before deploying overseas. He and Kory spent 18 months at Osan Air Base, South Korea, on a combat assignment and three years at Misawa AB in northern Japan, where his daughter, Violet, was born. While in Japan, in 2017, he applied for the Thunderbirds.
It is a highly competitive process for selection to the squad. For the officers, it begins with an application, personal letter, resume, flight records, and performance report. Finalists are selected from the highest caliber applicants whose initial interviews are conducted at airshows. Selection depends on interaction with crowds, with team members, and critical factors such as character and personality. The squad’s operations officer, wing commander and then a gauntlet of the 12 current flight crew members interview semi-finalists. Next, are interviews with one-star and two-star generals and air warfare commanders.
The team’s nominations go back to the generals, who look at career paths, timing, and records to make the final decision on four new pilots each year. In rotations, the officers serve two-year terms. Selection for the enlisted crewmembers is primarily merit-based. “They look for high caliber folks who already have highlighted themselves,” says Markzon. These staff serve three- to four-year terms.
After Markzon’s initial application, he was called for semi-final and final interviews but didn’t get a slot. “I didn’t let that stop me. I improved and applied again in 2018 and finally got the call in July 2018.” He joined the team in September and began flying in October. Having logged more than 1,900 flight hours as an Air Force pilot, this is Markzon’s first season flying with the Thunderbirds, and Davis-Monthan AFB is the season’s first show.
The squad is in the air 220 days a year for more than 80 air demonstrations annually. The schedule is a challenge for families, Markzon admits. “But the military is dedicated to whatever mission they have, and the family also makes that sacrifice.” Family members make great efforts to attend airshows when they are near the Las Vegas base, in Tucson, San Antonio, Sacramento, and Reno. For this first performance in Tucson, Markzon expects to have more than 100 family and friends watching from the ground, including his brother, Seth, from California; sister, Heide, from Chicago; and parents, David and Andrea, from Tucson.
“Part of my job as the advance is to run the show line with the local air show coordinator, who comes up with an aerobatic box, or a zone the squad will fly within. We ensure there is no potential for hazard,” he says, adding that safety is the top priority. This advance check gives local spectators a unique opportunity to view both his arrival fly-in on March 20, trailing smoke, and the pre-check with the single #8 aircraft. The other seven aircraft will fly in the next day, ahead of the show. The team will practice over Davis-Monthan on Thursday and Friday, another chance to preview their skills over the base’s airspace.
“The challenge at Davis-Monthan is that Tucson International Airport is close by and has lots of traffic,” says Markzon. “Normally during air shows, temporary flight restrictions apply from the ground to 15,000 feet above it, which is not the case in Tucson. Airspace west of DM has a shelf where our jets can’t fly in commercial airspace.” Markzon narrates the performance, selects music for maneuvers, takes media and celebrities on flights, and handles public relations and community outreach to “display pride and professionalism as we represent 660,000 total people in the Air Force,” he says.
Markzon remembers seeing airshows as a child. “People see the Thunderbirds when they are kids and want to become a pilot. That wasn’t my intention when I joined the Air Force, but it became where to go next when I thought of the people that helped me get where I am. It became my way of giving back. Someone believed in me when I was struggling in school. I hope to inspire another.”
The 70-minute airshow demo highlights a sharply choreographed, drill-style ground ceremony demonstrating esprit de corps of enlisted members. The jets take off flying only a few feet from wingtip to wingtip. The solo pilots integrate their routine, exhibiting the maximum capabilities of the F-16 Fighting Falcon, the Air Force’s multi-role fighter jet. For the airshow, viewers also will see A-10, C-17 and F-22 single ship demos, skydiving, air dog fights, stunt flying, and more.
Admission and on-base parking are free, but guests can purchase VIP tickets from $30 up, for limited seating. Also available are a military open house, ground and interactive displays and a kids’ play area. For information and tickets go to www.thunderandlightning