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This South Florida Native Is Now A Fuel Specialist For The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds

When Michael Knapp was a little kid living in Hollywood, Florida, he saw the U.S. Navy's Blue Angels perform. He was too young to remember where it was, but it almost surely was over Fort Lauderdale Beach at what was then called the Fort Lauderdale Air and Sea Show.

He never thought he would be back as part of such a spectacular event, but this year, he will be. Only the team he is part of is not the Blue Angels, but the Air Force Thunderbirds. To be picky, he won't actually see the show, he will see what the rest of us don't—the support operations that keep the jets screaming on their fast pace. Senior Airman Knapp's job as a fuel specialist will keep him on the ground at Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport, along with more than 100 Air Force personnel whose roles are to keep the jets flying on their precise schedule.

Knapp may be an aircraft fuel systems specialist, but that doesn't mean he fills gas tanks on the jets.

“That's a common misconception of what we do,” he says. “We actually work when an aircraft has a fuel leak or fuel is not reaching the engines. We change pumps, service the fuel tank. We are behind the scenes. If something malfunctions, we're ready to fix it.”

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Knapp got his job just recently, after spending five years in the Air Force after graduating from Boynton Beach's Park Vista High School. The 23-year-old is well prepared for a technical role.

“My father had a mechanic background,” he explains. “He worked for a number of automobile dealerships, and I took automotive classes in school. I always knew I wanted to be in the military, and the Air Force seemed the best route.”

But how do you get what would seem like a highly coveted slot with a world famous aerial team? Well, Knapp answered an ad—sort of. “I saw on [an] Air Force website that they were looking for applicants for the team,” he says. “I met the qualifications; it is a tough selection process.”

The pilots are obviously the stars of the Thunderbirds' daring performances, but they would be the first to admit they could not perform their precision aerial feats without a crack ground crew supporting them. It has always been that way. In World War II a medium bomber, the B-25, had a flight crew of six, but it took more than twice that many men on the ground to keep the plane in top condition.

Knapp's addition to the Thunderbirds crew is recent. As of March, he had not yet worked his first Thunderbirds show, which was scheduled for Tampa later that month. By the time he visits Fort Lauderdale, he will be a veteran with a half-dozen performances under his belt. Although he won't be flying, he knows the men who will be.

“Every new member gets to meet each of the pilots, to get on a personal feel,” he says. For the flyboys, Fort Lauderdale is an exciting place to perform. “The pilots love doing the beach shows,” says Knapp, for whom this year's event is more than just a homecoming. It will remind him of when, as a small person, he marveled at the jets roaring over Fort Lauderdale beach, their power shaking buildings, never dreaming that someday he would be one of those with the responsibility of keeping them in the air.

(Photos by Senior Airman Jason Couillard​)