Air Force Thunderbirds salute heroine Broward bus driver

Gwendolyn Whitfield is already a heroine in most everyone’s book.

She is the Broward County Transit driver who steered her bus to the safety of Fort Lauderdale police headquarters last month when a rider allegedly pulled a weapon and shot four people, two fatally.

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On Friday, Whitfield took a different kind of high-intensity ride, courtesy of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, who are in town for this weekend’s annual Fort Lauderdale Air Show.

It came after the Thunderbirds designated her as a “hometown hero” for her cool-headed action on Broward Boulevard in mid-March, when a gunman fired 21 shots aboard her bus, prompting her to drive against traffic to the police station, where police officers arrested the shooting suspect.

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On April 5, Broward County awarded her a Medal of Valor for her quick action, which saved most of her passengers.

Early Friday, Whitfield rode in the rear seat of an F-16C Fighting Falcon during a high-speed runway ride at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. She had been scheduled for a 45-minute flight over South Florida, but the trip was canceled by the Thunderbirds crew for unspecified reasons.

Nonetheless, Whitfield’s day was far from a disappointment, as family and close friends gathered early Friday at a privately run aviation company to watch her undergo extensive pre-flight briefings and don an unwieldy flight suit, which she wore during the runway ride.

“I’m fine with it,” she said. “I’m happy to be here anyway!’

After her ride, Whitfield acknowledged that the shooting episode “changed my life in many ways.”

“I’m more aware of things now,” she said. “I am also aware that there are still good people in this world, still. and that’s what gives us all hope, right?”

Maj. Jacob Impellizzeri, a 12-year veteran who was at the controls of the fighter jet, said he was “awestruck” by her story.

“We like to show pride and performance and give back something greater than yourself,” he said. “That is clearly what Gwendolyn did. You know, that day, I can’t even imagine what was going through her mind, but she acted and she acted with calmness and coolness. and that is what we do. That is what we train for.”

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Impellizzeri said he sees a parallel between his job and Whitfield’s.

“At the end of the day we are responsible for the lives on the ground, and we are responsible for the lives in the air,” he said. “Gwendolyn is responsible for every person who sits on her bus. and at the end of the day she made a decision. she made the right decision and she saved the lives of all those people.”