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Ex-Thunderbirds Crew Chief Returns to Oshkosh at Controls of F-15

Seven years ago, Ben “Omni” Ayivorh, EAA 1146709, first attended EAA AirVenture Oshkosh as a crew chief with the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds demonstration squadron. If you’re thinking, “There’s no cooler way to visit Oshkosh than that,” Ben is challenging that notion at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2021.

In his return to AirVenture for the first time since 2014, Ben landed at Wittman Regional Airport this time around in an F-15C Eagle — a full-circle moment for the Air Force captain after deciding to earn his commission and become a fighter pilot himself following his years maintaining the Thunderbirds’ F-16s.

ex thunderbirds crew chief returns to oshkosh at controls of f 15 Airplane GEEK Ex-Thunderbirds Crew Chief Returns to Oshkosh at Controls of F-15

“I very much live in the ‘pinch yourself’ territory of my life,” Ben said. “The Eagle is a massive airplane. Very few moments in flight do you have time to just take it in, but every now and then you have to look behind you and realize you’re strapped to this giant airplane. I attended Oshkosh for the very first time in 2014, and it blew me away. I’ve been trying to come back ever since. This was the very first time I remotely had the opportunity to come. … Getting to come back in the Eagle is in the realm of a dream come true.”

Prior to joining the Air Force, Ben grew up around aviation, as his father was a general aviation pilot. After going to college for a year, he decided to enlist in the Air Force and became a crew chief at Air Force Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base, which was right next door to the Thunderbirds.

“From that moment on, I was like, ‘Hey, that’s probably something I’d like to do,’” Ben said. “They [the Thunderbirds] look like they’re always having fun, and they’ve got a pretty sweet job and so I applied for that.”

Ben spent four years as a crew chief with the Thunderbirds, working primarily on the Thunderbird No. 5 F-16.

“I was the primary caretaker of the airplane,” Ben said. “I’m in charge of its overall well-being and especially with those jets, a lot of cleaning. General, overall maintenance, and then if there’s a particular issue, we’ll get a specialist involved — whether that’s avionics or something like that. … I followed them around to different show sites and got them ready to have a good air show.”

While serving as a crew chief with the Thunderbirds, Ben decided he wanted to take his Air Force career on a different path, which he hoped would lead to the cockpit.

“Over time, I wanted to cross-train. I was grateful for my time as a maintainer, but I didn’t want that as my whole career. I wanted to do something else. I got a PRK [eye surgery] done, which changed the game and allowed me to fly. I went and got my degree and applied for a commission, and I was lucky enough to be picked up as a pilot.”

ex thunderbirds crew chief returns to oshkosh at controls of f 15 1 Airplane GEEK Ex-Thunderbirds Crew Chief Returns to Oshkosh at Controls of F-15

In January 2016, Ben left the Thunderbirds to attend Air Force Officer Training School before going to pilot training and earning his wings in the F-15 in 2018. Ben is currently stationed at NAS Joint Reserve Base New Orleans and is serving with the 159th Fighter Wing, 122nd Fighter Squadron.

Having flown the Eagle for three years now, Ben can appreciate how impressive the airplane is, despite being a relatively old machine, and is glad the cards fell the way they did.

“WGASF: World’s Greatest Air Superiority Fighter. That’s one of the nicknames. 104-0 is its combat record,” Ben said of the F-15. “What I love about the Eagle, particularly the C — which is single seat … is like [you’re] alone and unafraid riding into battle. This jet was created arguably in the golden era of aviation for fighter jets, in the ’70s. It’s a pilot’s jet. It is a jet that you fly very much by feel. Today the Raptor or the F-16 or F-35, they’re all fly-by-wire. You’re yanking on the stick, and the jet ultimately decides how to operate. The Eagle is technically pushrods and hydraulics. When you yank on the stick, it’s going to give you exactly what you ask for. If you ask for too much, that’s bad, and if you don’t ask for enough, that’s also bad. The art of flying this airplane and flying it well is extremely challenging. … You have to feel what the airplane’s doing and how it’s talking to you. I think that’s a really unique experience and makes it really enjoyable to fly.”

As someone who’s been in military aviation for years now, Ben is looking to get back into the world of general aviation as well, having just purchased a Piper Cruiser. He plans on getting a taste of Oshkosh this year in his high-powered fighter and then returning with his own airplane down the road.

“It’s one of those things where I’m finally getting back to Oshkosh and getting a little taste of it and then hopefully bringing my own airplane in the years to come,” he said. “Then I’ll have the full experience, if you will.”

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