Kalispell’s Captain and Thunderbird Pilot Returns Home

By DILLON TABISH for the Flathead Beacon

Capt. Jason Curtis, right, puts his garrison cap on a student while joking around with the Hedges Elementary School student body before an all-school assembly in Kalispell. – Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

Young minds are fertile ground for dreams. Imaginations still genuine and brimming with wonder are free to run wild. The possibilities of the future seem endless. And as Captain Jason Curtis knows, all it takes for a dream to grow into something more is inspiration.

On Tuesday the gymnasium inside Cornelius Hedges Elementary School in Kalispell became a sea of anxious boys and girls. The room of kindergarteners through sixth graders all gazed upward at the man towering over the room wearing a peculiar green uniform. When it came time to ask questions, almost every hand in the gym shot up.

“What does it feel like to fly?” a third-grade boy asked.

Curtis smiled. Twenty-five years ago he was sitting right where they all were, wondering the same thing.

“Well,” he said. “It’s like nothing you’ve ever experienced before.”

Back in his hometown of Kalispell, Curtis shared his inspiring story at an assembly at his former grade school. The 31-year-old Flathead High School graduate has spent the last decade living his dream from inside the cockpit of F-16 fighter jets. Curtis has more than eight year of experience flying twice the speed of sound in skies around the world. He has flown combat missions in Afghanistan, providing critical support during times of need. Most recently he achieved another exceptional distinction after being chosen by the Air Force to become one of “America’s Ambassadors in Blue,” a Thunderbird pilot.

The Thunderbirds are a team of highly experienced Air Force officers who tour the nation holding air show demonstrations. The awe-inspiring shows feature fighter jets performing acrobatic maneuvers in the sky, like an airborne “rollercoaster,” Curtis said. Twirling overhead, the planes exceed 1,000 mph and sometimes come as close as 18 inches to each other. As Curtis describes them, the performances reflect the “amazing” abilities of the nation’s military and pay tribute to the troops overseas.

After undergoing a rigorous selection process, Curtis was selected in May to join the upcoming Thunderbird circuit, which will include several shows over the next two years. But Curtis already has his sights on one possible show in particular.

The Kalispell Chamber of Commerce has applied to host a show next May. The Air Force and Thunderbird organization are reviewing possible locations for the upcoming tour and will announce the selections on Dec. 10 at the International Council of Air Shows Convention. If Kalispell is chosen it would be the sixth time it has hosted the show.

“For me personally to be able to come back to my hometown and put on an air show would be absolutely amazing,” Curtis told reporters at a press conference last week at the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce.

It would also be a fortuitous twist in his storybook tale.

Curtis grew up in the historic neighborhoods of Kalispell, two blocks away from Hedges. The family had a rich history of military service, specifically in the air. Curtis’ Polish grandfather flew Spitfires in the British Royal Air Force in World War II. Curtis’ father became a U.S. citizen and flew fighter jets, shooting down 11 enemy aircraft in combat. However, only months before his son was born, he was shot down and killed in action in the Middle East.

“His story inspired me to fly,” Curtis told reporters. “They definitely inspired me to want to give back to this country.”

Further inspiration arrived in 1985. Curtis was only 4 years old when Kalispell hosted the nation’s premier fighter jets.

“I saw the Thunderbirds fly over Kalispell and I’ve never forgotten it,” he said.

He found his dream, and after that began setting goals to achieve it. As a teenager he mowed lawns to pay for flying lessons at the city airport. He focused diligently on school. After graduating from Flathead in 1999, he studied at Flathead Valley Community College for a year. That’s when the Air Force Academy accepted him, and his ascension only continued from there.

“Following dreams is difficult to do. There were so many times when I wanted to give up,” he told students. “But the difference between me and someone else, when I got knocked down I picked myself back up. And when we recover from failures we come out much stronger.”

Curtis stayed for over 45 minutes talking with students before rejoining his wife, Larissa, and their three-month-old daughter, Aurora, appropriately named after the radiant beauty of the sky.

But first he tried to connect with as many young minds as possible before school ended, remembering just how importation inspiration is.

“I was sitting right here in this gym just like you,” he said. “Dream big dreams and follow them.”