The skies over Milwaukee were clear of storms but still echoed the sounds of thunder on the July 21 and 22 weekend, with the return of “The Thunderbirds,” the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, as headliner of the Milwaukee Air & Water Show.

The Thunderbirds, “America’s Ambassadors in Blue,” headlined past years of Air & Water Show, and have been a popular attraction for the annual event. The team of six demonstration pilots flew their F-16 Fighting Falcons over Milwaukee’s lakefront, performing a series of maneuvers for the tens of thousands of spectators watching along the city’s freshwater coast.

The squadron has performed for more than 280 million people in all 50 states and 57 foreign countries over the course of its 66-year-long history. This year marked a special visit for the demonstration squadron with Air Force Captain Michelle “Mace” Curran. The Medford, Wisconsin native flew the Thunderbird #6 “Opposing Solo” Jet, and is only the fifth female pilot flying for the USAF Thunderbirds.

“I grew up in a small town and I wanted to travel. And I’ve always been drawn to flying,” said Captain Curran. “So the Air Force seemed like a natural fit, and I also was honestly was also looking for a scholarship for college.”

Captain Curran already had a celebrated military career before joining the Thunderbirds team of eight aviators, with more than a decade of fighter jet experience. She was also the first woman assigned to fly in the 355th Fighter Squadron. The position requires her to performs passes, rolls, and tight turns to show off the maximum capabilities of the F-16. The F-16 Fighting Falcon, with a full load of fuel, can withstand up to nine times the force of gravity, known as Gs. The pilot must maintain flight control during these high G-force combat maneuvers, while tracking targets, weather conditions and any neighboring aircraft.

What inspired you to join the Air Force?

I had a grandpa who was a lieutenant in the Navy. I went through his World War II trunk and tried on uniforms and looked at postcards. He got to travel all over the world. I grew up in a small town and I wanted to travel. I’ve always been drawn to flying. I hadn’t done a lot of flying aside from commercially, but I loved it, so the Air Force seemed like a natural fit. I was also honestly looking for a scholarship for college, so the three things kind of came together.

What would you say to young girls in the crowd watching you perform?

You have to exceed people’s expectations. People are going to set expectations for you based on where you grew up, the family you came from, your gender — there are all different factors that go into that. Constantly do your best, strive for perfection, exceed those expectations, and really don’t shortchange yourself. Don’t set boundaries that don’t really exist, that you just place there for yourself. You’ll be surprised at all of the things you can do if you just keep pushing. You could be flying a fighter one day.

Who were your role models growing up?

My dad. He was a big outdoorsman, and my big hobbies are all outdoors stuff, so that was inspiring for sure. He’s also a thrill-seeker. We would ride roller coasters all day at theme parks, as soon as I was tall enough to do it. And then he’s also a great dad — super supportive, super kind and funny. I like to think I take after him.

In addition to the return of the Thunderbirds, the 2019 Milwaukee Air & Water Show welcomed the United States Army Parachute Team “Golden Knights,” and other flying demonstration teams.