Good evening, FighterSweep Fans! I am beyond excited to start sharing my hopes, dreams, and aviation experiences with you. Not only that, but I’m eager to grow, learn, and pay forward the inspiration and opportunity I’ve been blessed with thus far in my career. As for my current job, it’s a pretty awesome one: I am a Dedicated Crew Chief for the United States Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron–the “Thunderbirds.”

Some of you may already know me through my social media presence, and some of you may be familiar with a video of mine already featured on here on FighterSweep. Here’s a little-known fact about that clip: I did majority of the editing on an iPad in the back of a C-17A, traveling to and from show sites!

I had a normal childhood, growing up in Burke, Virginia, right outside Washington, D.C. My father emigrated from Ghana to the United States in the early 1970s with a dream of becoming a pilot. Not only did he accomplish that dream, he passed on his passion for aviation to me; anytime my dad was going to the airport, I went along. Subsequently, I’ve been flying for as long as I can remember. I did a lot of “instrument flying,” as it was awhile before I was able to see over the dashboard.


Unfortunately I never seriously pursued my pilot’s license as kid; I took lessons here and there, but like many other things in life, I was going to do it later. After graduating high school I attended Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA, studying Mechanical Engineering. Only then did it start to dawn on me that I could no longer fly since I was far away from home.  The summer after freshman year, I renewed my pursuit of my certificate with serious intentions of finishing. This time, money and finding a plane suitable for soloing became limiting factors. Unfortunately, my license returned to its spot on the back burner.

When I returned to Old Dominion in the fall of 2008, I found my motivation for school had plummeted. I also realized I had a lack of direction, or even a vision for what I wanted to be when I grew up. It was the first time I really had to tangle with serious life choices, and I honestly couldn’t find the answers I was looking for. Against most advice, within 2 weeks I dropped out of college and left for home. I knew education was important, but I felt at the time school was not for me. I did some serious soul searching, and knew that if I wasn’t going to school, I was at least going do something to continue to learn and grow. After many conversations with mentors, neighbors, family, and friends, the United States Air Force entered the picture.


It was going to be a serious change for me: I had a huge afro and I was a vegetarian, so military structure was the complete opposite of everything I had been used to. I left for Basic Training in February of 2009, and received an assignment to the Tactical Aircraft Maintenance career field. In layman’s terms, I would be a fighter jet crew chief. I spent over 6 months at Sheppard AFB learning the ins and outs of the Lockheed-Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon.

The initial exposure was “cold” training–where all the aircraft no longer fly, and it’s purely an academic and very static training environment. After that I spent a little over a month at Luke AFB in Glendale, Arizona for “hot” training, where I learned to launch, recover, and service the Viper in an operational environment. From there, my first permanent assignment was to Nellis AFB, just outside of Las Vegas, Nevada.

I was assigned to Tomahawk Aircraft Maintenance Unit, which directly supports the United States Air Force Weapons School‘s F-16 division. It is a very unique squadron, one manned by the world’s best and most capable F-16 pilots and even though the 16 WPS is not a combat fighter squadron, they drop more munitions than any other Viper unit in the Air Force.

The most ironic part of being assigned to Tomahawk AMU was its proximity the Thunderbirds; the team is literally the hangar right next door. As a young Airman, I was drawn in by how everything they did was razor sharp. I set my sights on the team, and I knew it was what I wanted to be a part of. It would be 2 years before I would even be of rank to apply, so in the mean time I did everything I could to better myself and my craft.

In late spring of 2010, I finally finished my private pilot license and by the end of the summer in 2011, I put in an application package and was accepted to become a Thunderbird. For the past 4 years, I have worked numerous jobs on the team and have traveled all over the country (only 5 states left to visit!). It has been an incredible experience interacting and sharing my love of flying with so many people out there.


It is also very humbling to showcase the Air Force every weekend from March to November. I have personally been to over 75 different show locations and performed in over 150 ground shows in front of hundreds of thousands of people. I have seen our show hundreds times, and it still never gets old.

As many of you can recall, 2013 was a rough year in the airshow industry. I had eye surgery the summer prior to correct my vision, and right before the sequestration stand-down, I had a familiarization ride in one of our red, white, and blue F-16s. These two events were pivotal in determining the next vector for my career in the Air Force. When the Thunderbirds ceased flying operations on 1 April 2013, the future of my job as a Thunderbird became strangely unclear and I really started to look at my options.

Picture of the Day: Air Force Staff Sgt. Kaitlyn Lamolinara Thunderbirds Crew Chief

Read Next: Picture of the Day: Air Force Staff Sgt. Kaitlyn Lamolinara Thunderbirds Crew Chief

The PRK surgery had opened a door that I once thought would never be open–flying professionally. My familiarization ride in the Viper really blew me away with what I thought my perception of flying was. As a pilot in general aviation, I had a pretty good idea of what was going on, but I was totally overwhelmed. When I define task saturation, I immediately reference my F-16 ride.  Besides it being the ride of my life, I walked back to the hangar that day wondering how I might get myself back in that ejection seat as a pilot. I’d become totally enamored with the challenge of getting to that level of airmanship and within a month I had set my new goal: becoming a Commissioned Officer and earning my wings as an Air Force Pilot.

Wrenches to Wings: A Thunderbird’s Story

I have been in the Air Force long enough to know that even if I do everything right, it boils down to timing and favor. Regardless of the specific job, I was excited at the fact I could potentially commission and earn my wings. At this point I felt I had all the qualifications to apply for a commission, with the exception of one mandatory requirement: a bachelor’s degree. I only had my one year at Old Dominion, which I had rolled all my credits into a Community College of the Air Force Associates Degree in Aviation Maintenance Technology. I was 25, and time was not on my side to finish a bachelor’s degree and apply for a commission. Due to my travel schedule, a traditional classroom setting was not an option.

I finally found a school where I was able to attend classes online no matter where I was that week. I took as many classes as I could at a time to finish in the shortest amount of time. The unfortunate part is that between work, and school, it left virtually no time for “life.” If I wasn’t at work or an airshow, I was in my hotel room, or at home doing school work. While it was tough, and stressful at times, I learned more than I ever thought I would, both academically and about myself.

I started in August of 2013 and was scheduled to graduate in May of 2015 with Bachelor of Science in Strategic Leadership. Since you can apply to for a commission a short time before you are done with your degree, I put together a package and submitted it in December of 2014. In the March of 2015 I reaped the benefits of good timing and great favor: I was accepted for a commission! Not only would I become an Air Force Officer, but I would do so with an assignment to Undergraduate Pilot Training, or UPT!


So as my days a Thunderbird crew chief wind down, I often glance over to look at my next journey on the horizon. I am scheduled to attend Officer Training School in January of 2016, and UPT in the following March. If you had asked me on the day I graduated High School where I would be in the next 8 or 9 years, I could not have guessed how blessed I would be in my life and career.

I am fortunate to have the help that I have had, because it is hard to reach lofty heights without the mentorship and support of the ones who have been there before. I am totally excited to share my past experiences and my future goals, and it’s exciting to think about how those together will create this new adventure!


(All photographs courtesy of the Author’s personal collection)