Female Thunderbird pilot inspiring others to chase their dreams

Major Michelle Curran, call sign "Mace," is the only female fighter pilot on the Thunderbirds, the Air Force's demonstration team. 

"I'm a left-wing solo. I'm the first female to fly in that position, which is, I think, one of the hardest positions to fly," Curran said.

It's hard because Curran's job is to wow crowds with awe-inspiring aerobatics and high speed passes.

"We'll do opposing passes, where we fly right at each other head on. It's a very unforgiving job if you make mistakes. Really, what we do is life and death sometimes," Curran said.

What does it mean to be a Thunderbird?

From flying an F-16 to her passion for extreme sports, Curran is a thrill seeker. She flew 160 combat hours in Afghanistan before joining the team.

"Sometimes it's hard to be the only female in a squadron," she said.

Women weren't allowed to fly fighter jets in the Air Force for decades until Jeannie Marie Leavitt became the service's first female fighter pilot just 26 years ago.

"Those women that have blazed the trail for me, they're just regular people that were driven and you know, stepped outside their comfort zone," Curran said.

CBS EVENING NEWS
Norah O'Donnell flies with the Thunderbirds at the Heritage Flight Academy in Ronkonkama, NY. Michele Crowe

Lieutenant Colonel Eric Gorney, call sign "Miami," is in charge of flying civilians. He showed "CBS Evening News" anchor Norah O'Donnell a series of maneuvers the team performs during shows. Up in the air, they were spinning so fast, they created a gravitational force nine times their body weight. Pilots call it "pulling 9 G's."

Curran said the shows are meant to inspire people that will "never join the military."

"But if they go out and they, you know, chase a dream that they didn't think they could do because they saw what we can do, then our mission's achieved," she said.

The meaning behind the stars on Thunderbird jets
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    Norah O'Donnell is the anchor and managing editor of the "CBS Evening News." She also contributes to "60 Minutes."