U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds
Airshows have been in existence at least since 1910, and by 1927 the U.S. Army Air Corps had a flight demonstration team called the "Three Musketeers." The following year the Navy formed the "Three Sea Hawks" (forerunners of the U.S. Navy Blue Angels). But the United States Air Force was not officially created as a separate military service until 1947. By the following year, retired Major General Jones Bolt, who had been involved in the early test program for the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star spearheaded efforts to establish an Air Force flight demonstration team. Bolt's team, the "Acrojets," were officially recognized by the Air Force in March 1949, but it was disbanded the following year upon the outbreak of the Korean War. Meanwhile, in 1949, Lt. Colonel John England, the commander of the Air Force's cadet training school at Nellis AFB, Nevada, formed the "Red Devils," a flight demonstration team using World War II-era P-51 Mustangs. However, the team was also short-lived, because the Mustangs were needed for service in Korea.
Also in 1949, a group of Air Force pilots stationed in Europe, led by Captain Harry Evans and twin brothers Lts. "Bill" and "Buck" Pattillo, formed the "Skyblazers," which performed and received wide recognition throughout Europe and North Africa. The "Skyblazers" switched from their original P-80 Shoting Stars to Republic F-84E Thunderstreaks in 1950. In 1951 the team was officially designated as the Air Force's European flight demonstration team. In May 1952, the "Skyblazers" suffered a fatal accident, and the team was disbanded in August 1952 when the three founders were rotated to other units. The "Skyblazers" were reformed in 1953, flying North American F-86 Sabres, and continued to perform in Europe until January 1962. Meanwhile, a number of regional and local Air Force aerobatic teams sprang up during the 1950s, including the "Minute Men," the "Black Knights," the "Sabre Dancers," the "Four Horsemen," and the "Guardian Angels." One of the more prominent of these regional flight demonstration teams was the "Sabre Knights," which represented the Air Force's Air Defense Command and flew North American F-86D Sabre Dogs.
The current U.S. Air Force flight demonstration team -- the "Thunderbirds" -- had its beginning in 1953, when Brigadier General Charles Born, commander of crew training, was given the task of forming a unit "to demonstrate efficiency, familiarization and orientation to people not knowing of the F-84G; to create interest in the training program; and to recruit aviation cadets". The 3600th Air Demonstration Flight was officially established at Luke AFB, Arizona on June 1, 1953. The team needed an aircraft that was stable for formation flight, reliable enough to meet the demanding show schedule, rugged enough for aerobatic maneuvers, and representative of the Air Force's combat aircraft, and the Republic F-84G Thunderjet was chosen. Next came the task of selecting the first team pilots, which eventually included team leader Major Dick Catledge, wingmen Lts. Bill and Buck Pattillo (formerly of the "Skyblazers"), and slotman Captain Bob Kanaga. The next task was to select a name for the team, and a contest was held at Luke AFB. The name "Stardusters" was selected from the entries received, but this selection was over-ruled by the commander of the Air Training Command, who insisted that the name "Thunderbirds" was more appropriate because of the Native American heritage of the area around Luke AFB. To the Native Americans, the Thunderbird grants victory in war by controlling the forces of good over evil. Captain Bob McCormick, the team's spare pilot designed the red, white, and blue color scheme to be applied to the F-84G Thunderjets and the team's emblem, both of which have changed little since 1953. The "Thunderbirds" flew their first demonstration on June 8, 1953 to an audience of 3,000 at Luke AFB and its first public airshow eight days later. In 1954, the "Thunderbirds" made a 12-country tour of Central and South America, featuring a supersonic show opening by a solo performer in an F-86 Sabre.
[All photos courtesy of the U.S. Air Force and the Thunderbirds]
In keeping with the mission of showcasing the Air Force's top-of-the-line fighter aircraft, in 1955 the "Thunderbirds" switched to the Republic F-84F Thunderstreak, a swept-wing version of the Thunderjet. Smoke tanks were added to the Thunderstreaks, and the new air show regularly featured a solo performer in addition to the traditional diamond formation maneuvers.
For the 1956 airshow season, the "Tbirds" again changed aircraft, this time to the North American F-100C Super Sabre. The Super Sabre gave the "Thunderbirds" the distinction of being the first flight demonstration team with supersonic capability. The change allowed the team to greatly expand its airshow, with more climbing maneuvers than was possible before. In 1956, the team was transferred to Nellis AFB, Nevada, which has been its home base ever since. The team suffered one of the most devastating crashes in its history in October 1958, when a C-123 support aircraft crashed, killing 14 support members. The "Thunderbirds" made their first Far East tour in 1959, performing 29 shows in 31 days and also demonstrating the long-range deployment capabilities of the Air Force. President John F. Kennedy was among the spectators at a May 1962 airshow at Eglin AFB, Florida, and in 1963, the "Tbirds" made their first European and North African tours.
In 1964, the "Thunderbirds" transitioned to the Republic F-105 Thunderchief. However, this change lasted only six shows during the period of April 26 to May 9. On May 9th, Captain Gene Devlin's Thunderchief broke apart during a climb due to structural problems, and all Air Force Thuderchiefs were immediately grounded until the problem could be fixed. However, the "Thunderbirds" never used the Thundercheif again, instead switching to the F-100D, an upgraded version of the F-100C Super Sabres they had used from 1956 to 1963.
Visually, the only noticable difference between the F-100C and F-100D variants of the Super Sabre was the addition of a large refueling probe on the right wing of the F-100D. For the "Thunderbirds," the F-100D era (1964 to 1968) was, and continues to hold the record as, the busiest in the team's history. In 1965, the team made three overseas tours -- to the Caribbean, Europe, and Latin America -- comprising 121 shows in 23 countries. In 1967, the "Thunderbirds" flew their 1000th show, and in 1968 the team was officially designated the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron.
With the Vietnam War raging in Southeast Asia, in 1969 the "Thunderbirds" were given the McDonnell-Douglas F-4E Phantom II, the top-of-the-line fighter aircraft at the time, as its new show plane. In June of that year, the team performed for President Richard Nixon and the 1969 graduating class of the Air Force Academy, an event that was broadcast by ABC television to more than 10 million viewers nationwide. Because of the awesome power of the Phantom, the "Thunderbirds" were able to expend even further the flight envelope for its airshows, including solo low altitude rolls with landing gear and tailhook extended (the Phantom had a tailhook because it was originally designed and built for the Navy, which used the F-4J variant). But for visual impact, the Phantoms required extensive repainting because of the variable-colored alloys used for their fuselages to withstand the heat of Mach II flight. As a result, the planes were given an overall base coat of white polyurethane paint before the red and blue design markings were added. All previous "Thunderbird" aircraft sported red, white, and blue designs on the unpainted aluminum skins. The white base color has been used on all "Thunderbird" aircraft since. In 1969, the team peformed to its smallest audience -- 30 people -- at Clear, Alaska, and in 1971 performed to its largest audience ever -- more than 2.3 million in two days -- at the Paris Airshow at Le Bourget Airport. The oil crisis of 1973 finally brought an end to the Phantom era for the "Thunderbirds."
"Economy" was the key-word in the selection by the "Thunderbirds" of the Northrop T-38 Talon as the replacement for the F-4E Phantom. The Talon is the only non-combat aircraft used by the team, but it was unequalled in terms of economy -- five Talons used the same amount of fuel for an airshow as one Phantom! Although it was a trainer, the Talon had supersonic capability and its tight turing radius allowed for an airshow that kept most of the action at "stage center." Another "Thunderbird" tradition was changed with the introduction of the Talon. Because of the close proximity of the slot aircraft to the exhaust of the leader in the diamond formation, the slot's tail always sported a black discoloration, which was allowed to remain. But with the Talon, the ground crews took on the task of keeping the slot's tail clean after every show.
The Talon performed admirably for the "Thunderbirds," and they completed their 2000th airshow in 1976. But January 18, 1982, almost saw the termination of the team, when a malfunction on the leaders' aircraft during a line abreast loop caused the entire team to crash into the Nevada desert during a practice airshow. Public debate was sharply divided after this crash, with opponents of the concept of flight demonstration teams agruing that the "Thunderbirds" and other similar teams were "hot shot stunt pilots" who were spending too much of the taxpayers' dollars. But those who understood the value and the dedication to safety of the "Thunderbirds" and the "Blue Angels" came to their support. On January 26, 1982, Congress passed a resolution stating that "The Congress hereby affirms its strong support for continuation of the Thunderbirds program." In the years since the "diamond crash" of January 1982, the "Thunderbirds" have not suffered a fatal accident.
1982 was a year of rebuilding for the "Thunderbirds." The team took deliver of its first General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon in June 1982 and spent the next 10 months practicing in prepration for the 1983 show season. Beginning with a show on April 2nd, 1983 turned into a record-setter for the team. About 16 million spectators in 33 states saw the "Tbirds" in action, including a record 2.4 million for a 1-day show at Coney Island. The team made its first appearance in a Communist country in 1987, with a Far East tour that included shows in the People's Republic of China. The team upgraded to the F-16C variant of the Fighting Falcon (from the original F-16A variant) in 1992, and celebrated its 40th Anniversary in 1993. In 1996, the "Thunderbirds" made another European tour, this one including shows in the former Soviet-bloc countries of Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovenia. By December 1999, the "Thunderbirds" had been in existence for 46 years and had performed shows in 59 countries and all 50 states for more than 290 million people worldwide. The men and women of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds truly are America's Ambassadors to the world.
For More Information
For more information about the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, check out the following books, videos, and web site:
~~ Books ~~
~~ Videos ~~
A Team Profile
Thunder Over the Pacific
~~ Official Thunderbirds Web Site ~~
1996-2015 Arnold E.
van Beverhoudt, Jr.