A Seasoned Thunderbird Returns to Team

In 1985, Pratt & Whitney’s Craig Sniff began working for the Thunderbirds – the U.S. Air Force’s demonstration squadron – as a jet engine technician. Now, three decades later, he has returned to his Thunderbird roots – this time as a field service representative for the 2019 season.

As a field service representative, Sniff travels with the team and speaks with the general public about the Pratt & Whitney F100 engines that power the Thunderbirds’ F-16 Fighting Falcons. He is responsible for monitoring all engine operations, performing hourly inspections, and mentoring the U.S. Air Force technicians who work on the F100.

“I’m essentially the ‘face’ of Pratt & Whitney to the Thunderbirds team and all U.S. Air Force personnel who support them,” he said. “This in turn requires me to continuously strive to stay at the top of my game, at all times.”

Q: What was your role on the Thunderbirds team and what was that experience like?

Sniff: I served on the Thunderbirds team from September 1985 to December 1988 as a jet engine technician. During the 1987 show season, I was the assistant crew chief on the No. 5 lead solo aircraft. This was back when the team was flying the F-16A/B (Block 15) aircraft, powered by the Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-200 engine. We were fortunate to have one of the finest field service representatives supporting us from Pratt & Whitney: Jim Beaver, who was a great mentor.

As a member of the team, I had the opportunity to travel extensively to air shows around the world, including China, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand and Australia. I was also part of the team when we converted from the F100-PW-200 to the F100-PW-220 engines. During my time on the team, I also experienced several flights in the back seat, traveling faster than the speed of sound and pulling 9.4 Gs – an experience you can never forget. The attention to detail and work ethic of the Thunderbirds was truly impressive and I learned so much about teamwork, leadership, and myself in that role. It was an incredible experience to be part of the team.

Q: What brought you to Pratt & Whitney?

Sniff: From my time on the Thunderbirds team, I was familiar with Pratt & Whitney and its F100 engine. Based on my interactions with several Pratt & Whitney field service representatives in the past, it seemed like a great place to work as well as a way for me to continue to support the U.S. Air Force and its mission – albeit in a different capacity.

I first applied for the field service representative position five years ago and didn’t make the cut. Last year, I was given the opportunity to fill in for a field service representative at Nellis Air Force Base, and during this time I realized how much I enjoyed the job and the passion I had for it. After discussing it with my wife, I made the decision to reapply for the program and was accepted this time around. For a job like this where you travel the country, you really need the support of your family behind you and luckily I had – and still have – that.

Q: What is it like to be back working with the Thunderbirds, three decades later?

Sniff: Being back with the team is extraordinary. Their enthusiasm for what they do on a daily basis has not changed in the 30 years since I was last involved with the team. The mission, dedication to duty, pride and professionalism has not changed at all -- it is evident in every team member and everything that they do. What has changed, however, is how the general public’s awareness of the team and the incredible precision it displays at air shows has been magnified by today’s technology, like cell phones and social media).

I recently went through the mandatory two-week orientation like every other Thunderbird; meaning I re-learned 65 years of Thunderbirds’ history to be able to wear that patch again for the second time in my career. After completing the training, I earned the respect of my peers and they took me in as one of their own. That’s made the experience of learning this new position both rewarding and successful so far. I’m beyond thrilled to be here with the team and to represent Pratt & Whitney.

Q: As a field service representative, you’re interacting with the customer on a daily basis. Any lessons learned from a customer experience perspective?

Sniff: In my role, I’m essentially the “face” of Pratt & Whitney to the Thunderbirds team and all U.S. Air Force personnel who support them. This in turn requires me to continuously strive to stay at the top of my game, at all times. It is extremely important that I advise my customer with accurate propulsion data and processes, so that they can achieve their mission safely.    

Q: What has your experience been like working on the Pratt & Whitney F100 engine?

Sniff: I started working on the F100-PW-100 in June of 1977, at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. I worked in the jet engine intermediate maintenance shop, where I learned to assemble and disassemble the engine. At that time, we had a number of engines coming in for service at the same time and we worked very long hours and days, especially as parts were hard to get at the time. In the past, if you changed a unified fuel control, it would take six hours to replace the component and another four hours to trim the engine. Replacement of a flameholder meant removing the augmentor module to accomplish that.

With the advancement of propulsion technology, the F100-PW-220/229 was developed, which I was introduced to in 1988. This variant of the F100 was such a monumental achievement that I remember telling my Pratt & Whitney field service representative at the time, Marty Lueders, that I felt like a Maytag repair man, given how it easy it was to maintain.

A great example is when I was with the 33rd Tactical Fighter Wing, 58th Fighter Squadron during Desert Shield and Storm with F-15C/D aircraft that were powered by F100-PW-220 engines. Our squadron achieved more air to air victories (17) than any other squadron, which could not have been possible without the engines working flawlessly. We were deployed for a year and in that time I can only recall three engine-related issues. I believe that that is a great testament to the talented employees of Pratt & Whitney who continue to deliver exceptional products to customers.

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