Seeing the new "Top Gun" movie sequel starring Tom Cruise is not the only way for a Tommie to experience dramatic air maneuvers this summer. A University of St. Thomas graduate will be flying the number three right side slot when the United States Air Force Thunderbirds Air Demonstration Squadron headlines the annual Duluth Air Show on July 16.
Major Lauren “Threat” Schlichting ’12 is one of only six female pilots in the 69-year history of the squadron and the second female Thunderbird to have graduated from the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.
During the show, Schlichting and her fellow Thunderbirds will push their F-16 Falcons to the limit in the type of highly choreographed near misses that can test the nerve of even the most elite Air Force fighter pilot.
The first time she attempted a tight formation loop, Schlichting realized how unnatural it was to be inverted at 500 mph with another fighter so close she could almost reach out and touch it.
“You have to ignore some pretty basic survival instincts,” Schlichting said. “I don’t know if people have a sense for how close we actually get to one another. There are times when my commander’s missile rail is about 18 inches away from my canopy.”
Schlichting clearly remembers the spark that ignited her passion for aviation. “In second grade, two astronauts from NASA came to speak at our school in my hometown of Stillwater, Minnesota. The funny thing is that I was way more interested in the fact that they were pilots than the fact that they were astronauts,” Schlichting said.
For Schlichting, the choice to attend St. Thomas was simple. ROTC Detachment 410 had a strong reputation for cultivating cadets, and the university offered a unique subsidy covering any remaining tuition, room and board after ROTC scholarships. St. Thomas is an attractive option for ROTC candidates; the university received the Military Friendly School Gold Award in 2022.
As a math major, Schlichting appreciated the patience and dedication of the faculty and how their example inspired her later in her career.
“I would sit in the math building for hours doing proof after proof, and my professors would be right there with me, helping me along and enabling me to be successful,” Schlichting said. “That definitely prepared me to get my wings in the Air Force and become a fighter pilot.”
After graduating from St. Thomas in 2012, Schlichting received her commission as an officer in the U.S. Air Force and attended flight school, where she earned a coveted fighter pilot assignment. In 2018, she deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Inherent Freedom where she logged over 420 combat hours in her F-15E Strike Eagle.
Upon her return from deployment, Schlichting went on to become an Air Force flight instructor, where the example set by her math professors from St. Thomas proved very useful.
“I would spend long hours with my students in simulators, and I would think back to my professors at St. Thomas and how patiently they helped me work through proofs,” Schlichting said. “It’s definitely something I wanted to emulate.”
As a female Thunderbird pilot, Schlichting is often approached by young girls who want to follow in her footsteps. “I think it’s really important when you have a dream that you see yourself in someone else who’s accomplished that dream. I go out to events, and little girls want to come talk to me. It’s special to me because I was that girl,” Schlichting said.
Schlichting appreciates the benefit of setting this example because it was another University of St. Thomas graduate and female Thunderbird pilot who inspired her to apply. Michelle “Mace” Curran ’09 served in the Air Force from 2009-21. Curran completed a tour of duty in Afghanistan in 2016, and in 2019 she became just the fifth female pilot in Thunderbird history.
During the selection process, current Thunderbird pilots have an opportunity to weigh in on candidates.
“When Lauren applied to become a member of the Thunderbirds, I was involved in the hiring process, and I was a huge advocate for her, but if her skills and her personality weren’t there, it wouldn’t have mattered how much I advocated for her,” Curran said. “She had all of the skills, she had a great reputation and she was one of the nicest human beings I’ve ever met, which was also very apparent to everyone else. So it was cool to be able to help push for her a little bit because she was just the perfect person for the job.
“I knew Lauren from St. Thomas. She was a freshman when I was a senior, and we were in Detachment 410 together. I wonder if me becoming a Thunderbird pilot had any impact on Lauren becoming one too,” Curran said.
Schlichting left little doubt. “I followed Michelle through her career. When she got a pilot slot in the Thunderbirds, I thought she was so cool, and I knew it was what I wanted to do,” Schlichting said.
As commander of ROTC Detachment 410, Lt. Col. Mike Fiandt keeps a close eye on the careers of former officers in training. “It’s always exciting to hear about the amazing accomplishments of our Det 410 alumni and what they’re doing out on active duty. Major Schlichting’s selection as a Thunderbird pilot is a testament to her dedication, character, and excellence, not only as a pilot but as a U.S. Air Force officer,” Fiandt said. “Major Schlichting and Michelle Curran exemplify the culture of leadership, service, teamwork, and excellence produced by our Air Force ROTC program and the St. Thomas community.”
Visit the U.S. Air Force ROTC Detachment 410 webpage to learn more about ROTC at St. Thomas.