Mentors helped shape Thunderbird pilot’s life

The wind beneath his wings

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Curtis, a 1999 Flathead High School graduate, will fly next weekend as the Opposing Solo pilot for the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds at the Mountain Madness Air Show. (U.S. Air Force photo)

As one of six stars of the U.S. Air Force’s Thunderbirds squadron, Maj. Jason Curtis has all the qualities of an elite pilot.

He’s intelligent, focused, personable and flies with unparalleled precision. He’s also humble — and quick to credit those who guided him during his childhood in Kalispell.

Curtis, 33, is returning to his hometown for next weekend’s Mountain Madness Air Show at Glacier Park International Airport. He is the Thunderbirds’ No. 6 pilot, called the Opposing Solo.

Some of his former teachers and longtime friends and mentors will be among the familiar faces he will see at a meet-and-greet gathering on Friday at Depot Park in Kalispell.

Jean Barragan, his Advanced Placement history teacher at Flathead High School, is one of those special people in his life.

“Mrs. Barragan is an amazing person,” Curtis said in a phone interview last week. “She just believed in me and we’ve stayed in contact ever since.”

He recalled how Barragan wrote a letter of recommendation for him as he applied to the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

“She told me, ‘I’ll be there at your [academy] graduation in 2004, and true to her words she was there as I threw up my hat as the Thunderbirds flew over,” Curtis said.

In May this year — almost 10 years to the day — Barragan was at Falcon Stadium in Colorado Springs once again. This time, Curtis was among the Thunderbird pilots who roared over the stadium as a new class of graduates tossed their hats into the air.

“She was just a very large force for good,” said Curtis, a 1999 Flathead graduate. “She was a huge motivator and a tough teacher. She was the only teacher to give me a B; she didn’t let anything slide.”

Barragan happened to be in Colorado Springs in May because her son, Jason Sutton, a 1989 Flathead graduate and another of Curtis’ mentors, was accepting a command position for Schriever Air Force Base.

“I hadn’t been in the stadium since he [Jason Curtis] had graduated 10 years before,” Barragan said. “It was an absolute delight to hear that his accomplishments had gone so precisely, his dreams had unfolded.”

Barragan, now a teacher at Flathead Valley Community College, well remembers Curtis’ flair for composition and his “heart for internationalism.”

“We used to say we met for intelligent conversation,” she said about discussions the two had while he was a student. “He was a kid of spiritual maturity. He thought about things. He was a student who was inquisitive about history and political science.”

Curtis, who learned to fly at Kalispell City Airport, said he didn’t start his Air Force career with the goal of joining the Thunderbirds, even though they inspired him to learn to fly. He was just 4 years old in 1985 when the Thunderbirds performed in Kalispell.

He remembers that “hair-standing-up-on-the-back-of-the-neck feeling” watching the jets maneuver overhead. It inspired him to pursue a career in aviation.

After he earned a degree in aeronautical engineering, Curtis was among the 2 percent of his class selected for the elite Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training program at Luke Air Force Base in Phoenix.

He became an officer when the nation was at war.

“My focus, my efforts were towards combat operations and valor in combat,” Curtis said.

His efforts paid off with assignments in Korea and Italy and combat duty in Afghanistan and Libya. He applied for the Thunderbird team as a way to share the professionalism and valor he had witnessed in combat.

Curtis said a chance meeting with Lt. Col. Dan Fey during high school sparked another relationship that steered him toward flying.

“I never lettered in any sport growing up,” Curtis said. “I was a snowboarder and a drummer, not your typical letterman jacket-wearing kind of kid.”

Curtis worked in Flathead High School’s career office at the same time Fey was there for a short stint, coordinating a school-to-work program. The two struck up a conversation. Fey was a West Point graduate who had served 20 years in the Army.

“I told him my interest in being a fighter pilot and he looked at me funny,” Curtis recalled. “He said, ‘You seem like a punk kid.’”

At the time Curtis had bleached hair and was wearing the unconforming clothing typical of a teenage snowboarder.

“He said: ‘You jump off cliffs. That’s a calculated risk, dangerous stuff. You know what? You are exactly what they’re looking for,’” Curtis said. “He helped me get into the academy.

“He helped groom me to become a military officer and advocated for my appointment to the academy.”  

Fey came out to watch Curtis fly F-16s when he was an instructor pilot at Luke Air Force Base. Curtis said he has tried to duplicate the qualities he saw in Fey.

“He was very noble. He taught me how to be a good officer and how to lead men in and out of combat. A lot of core characteristics I take from him,” Curtis said.

Another person who greatly influenced his life was Mike McFarland, Curtis’ baseball coach and a fellow drummer.

“He was a great coach and a great motivator,” Curtis recalled.

McFarland, then a drummer with The Fanatics, was a good friend with Curtis’ drum teacher, and they hit it off.

McFarland remembers Curtis as “real focused, very dependable.

“He’d do anything for you,” McFarland said. “He listened and learned .. we kept in touch through his mother. I bought him a subscription to Modern Drummer magazine. He really liked that.”

After Curtis completed his active duty in Afghanistan, he brought McFarland an American flag he had carried during one of his missions.

“It was the nicest gift I’d ever received,” McFarland said.

Curtis also made a point to mention Andrew Crawford, a 1996 Flathead graduate, as another mentor who influenced him early in his life. Crawford went on to become a professional snowboarder and aerospace engineer.

“There was no one I looked up to more than Andrew growing up,” Curtis said. “Every time he was featured in a magazine, I put the picture up in my room ... I remember snowboarding with him on Big Mountain, watching in awe and seeing a massive following of 20 skiers and snowboarders trailing him.

“I also remember during a pep rally at Flathead High School, our principal showed a picture of Andrew on the big-screen projector. The entire gymnasium erupted in applause. This was three years after he graduated. That just shows the lasting effect he has had on our youth and our community.”

Curtis’ mother, Kris Curtis, tops the list of those who shaped his character. She was pregnant with him when her husband, Brad Curtis, died in a commercial airline accident in Saudi Arabia a few months before Jason was born. He was a pilot onboard an airliner that caught fire from an electrical malfunction midway through the flight.

The plane made a safe landing on Aug. 19, 1980, in Riyadh, but all 301 people on board perished when they were unable to open the doors and escape the burning plane.

After the accident, Kris moved from California to Kalispell to raise her newborn son and his older sister, Kathy. She had family ties to the Libby area.

“I wanted a small enough community that people would accept me. I wanted to raise them in a safe environment, being a single mom,” Kris said. “People embraced me and our situation. I had friends to support me.”

As the mother of a Thunderbird pilot, Kris is busy preparing for the hubbub that will accompany the upcoming air show. She will be cooking her son’s favorite breakfast menu, including Norwegian-style French toast, for the pilots at her home during their stay in Kalispell.

Curtis is married to his high-school sweetheart, Larissa, a ballet dance professional. They have a 2-year-old daughter, Aurora. He also lauds her support of his career, calling her the glue of the family.

The daily pace of a Thunderbird pilot is brisk. The squadron puts on more than 70 air shows during a season that begins in March and continues through mid-November.

The Thunderbirds arrive with fanfare in the Flathead Valley on Thursday and will spend that day doing a site survey, looking for any obstacles within their performance area. Friday is a practice day for working out the details “so the Saturday show is absolutely perfect,” Curtis said.

“Every single maneuver is dialed in to the nth degree so we can provide a show that people will remember the rest of their lives,” he said.

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

Curtis waits to taxi for takeoff.

 

Maj's. Blaine Jones, Thunderbird 5, Lead Solo and Jason Curtis, Thunderbird 6, Opposing Solo, perform the Opposing Knife-Edge Pass during the 2014 Cannon Air Force Base Air Show and Open House. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Larry E. Reid Jr.)

 

Maj. Jason Curtis flies his F-16 Fighting Falcon at Hill Air Force Base in Utah on June 27. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Larry E. Reid Jr.)

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