Flying high with the Thunderbirds

A Denver Water employee’s stint with the U.S. Air Force’s elite squadron

November 10, 2015 | By: Dave Gaylinn
Jim Dye in the cockpit of a Thunderbird performing an engine run.
Jim Dye in the cockpit of a Thunderbird performing an engine run.

For many aviation enthusiasts, watching the Thunderbirds soar through the sky is a bucket list item. So in honor of Veterans Day, we’re proud to highlight one of our own who had a front-row seat as a member of this elite aerial demonstration team.

Today, Jim Dye is the system manager of Operations & Maintenance support services, where he oversees Denver Water’s inventory and vehicle operations, as well as trade shops and environmental compliance. But Denver Water is Dye’s second profession; he spent the first 30 years of his career with the U.S. Air Force. During his service, he was responsible for keeping the Thunderbirds in the sky by performing maintenance on the jets.

He is proud to say that in 62 years of the team performing, the Thunderbirds have never canceled an air show because of maintenance issues.

Dye enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1985, and 10 years into his service he was selected to be a member of the Thunderbirds, the Air Force’s elite aerial demonstration team.

The Thunderbirds tour the U.S. and the world performing aerobatic formations and solo flying in specially marked aircraft. The team not only entertains spectators, but also helps the Air Force recruit the next generation of fliers.

As a member of the Thunderbirds, Dye traveled about 265 days a year around the world. Many performances blur together, but Dye remembers one as particularly rewarding.

“We did a tour in Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union,” said Dye. “We did Romania, Bulgaria and Slovenia. It was absolutely amazing to go into the former Soviet Union. We were the first U.S. military to be in there. (The people) absolutely went nuts.”

Among his other favorite stops with the Thunderbirds were performances at Cheyenne Frontier Days. Dye enjoyed his visits to Cheyenne and made many friends there. His last Air Force assignment, before retiring in 2014, was in Cheyenne as the operations superintendent overseeing 150 nuclear missiles in Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska.

Jim Dye about to land for one of his deployments in Afghanistan.
Jim Dye about to land for one of his deployments in Afghanistan.

When not keeping the Thunderbirds running high in the sky, Dye served several tours in the Middle East in support of every operation since the first Gulf War in 1991. He said he would pack his bags in a second and deploy again if given the opportunity — he misses the camaraderie.

Recently, Dye was selected to the Thunderbirds’ alumni board of directors for a three-year term. In this role, he helps maintain the team’s traditions, keeps up communication with alumni and schedules biennial reunions. “I’m one of seven board members who run the alumni association,” he said. “There’s a balance of taking care of the alumni while taking care of the current team.”

While Denver Water’s equipment may not reach speeds of 700 miles per hour, Dye is still trying to break barriers. He manages 12 different departments at Denver Water, including the warehouse, trade shops, fleet operations and environmental compliance.

When he’s not on the clock, Dye enjoys hunting and fishing. “Alaska really spoiled me for fishing, though,” he laughed. Most of all, Dye enjoys spending time with his wife, Michelle, and their five children, ranging in age from 12 to 25.

He clearly wasn’t looking for a slow-paced retirement from the Air Force. “It’s just not in my DNA (to relax),” said Dye. “It’s been this way since I was 18. Go, go, go.”

Jim Dye proudly showing off a steelhead fish he caught in Yakutat, Alaska.
Jim Dye proudly showing off a steelhead fish he caught in Yakutat, Alaska.

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