The United States Air Force Thunderbirds

By Willie Bodenstein



On 25 May 1953 just six years after the formation of the United States Air Force as a separate service an air demonstration unit called the Thunderbirds was established. The unit, based at Luke AFB, consisted of seven officers and twenty two enlisted men.



The unit's team leader was Major Dick Catledge whilst twin brothers' Captains Bill and Buck Pattilo flew left and right wing respectively and Captain Bob Kanaga flew in the slot position. Captain Bob McCormick was the reserve pilot and Captain Bill Brock served as the information and team narrator. The team, that was equipped with the F-84G Thunderjets, had its own complement of maintenance staff. The straight-wing configuration of the sub sonic F-84G made it the ideal jet powered aircraft available for the demonstration of aerobatic manoeuvres. The team's first display consisted of a series of formation aerobatics that lasted 15 minutes and it was only later that a soloist was introduced using the spare aircraft.


It was the always the intention that the Thunderbirds would display the most advanced fighters on the inventory of the USAF and in 1955 the Thunderjet made way for the swept wing F-84F Thunderstreak. The Thunderstreak last only one season and was replaced by the supersonic F-100C Super Sabre for the 1956 season.



The team relocated to AFB Nellis in Nevada. The move to the Super Sabre also resulted in a change in the team's demonstration; the Cuban 8 opening routine was dropped and emphasis was placed on low, screaming flyovers and demonstrations of take-off performance. The soloist could now fly a supersonic demonstration. However all supersonic displays were later banned by the Federal Aviation Administration.


In April 1964 the team was allocated the F-105B Thunderchief in which it flew only six displays. The Thunderchief was withdrawn during May 1934 following a catastrophic structural failure of the No. 2 aircraft during a pitch-up manoeuvre that resulted in the death of Captain Gene Devlin. The team reverted back to the Super Sabre which served for the 13 years, retired in 1969.


The teams next display aircraft was one of the most iconic fighters of all time, the McDonnel Douglas F-4E Phantom. The Phantom served the team until 1974 when it became a victim of the world wide fuel crisis and made way for the T-38A Talon, a modest military jet trainer. Five T-38s used the same amount of fuel needed for one F-4.


The Talon remained with the team until 1982 when the Thunderbirds suffered a catastrophic loss during pre-season training on 18 January. While practicing the four-plane diamond loop, the formation impacted the ground at high speed, instantly killing all four pilots.



The next and still current aircraft allocated to the team was the F-16. Due to conversion onto this high and state of the art fighter the Thunderbirds did not perform in the 1982 airshow season, official displays only started in 1983. The F16s flown by the Thunderbirds differ very little from those in operational service. The 200 mm cannon and ammunition drum is removed and replaced by a smoke generating system and the distinctive glossy red and white Thunderbirds paint scheme is applied. Should it become necessary the aircraft can be returned to active service in short order. In 1992 the team switched to the F-16C.



A typical Thunderbirds display in the F-16 will consist of eight different formations, Diamond, Delta, Stinger, Arrowhead, Line-Abreast, Trail, Echelon and five Card and all manoeuvres are performed at speeds of 450-500 mph. Separation between aircraft in the tight manoeuvres are as close as 18 inches. The display by the soloist includes fast and slow rolls, very tight turns and fast and slow passes all performed at speeds ranging between 500-700 mph.




In 1997 the USAF celebrated its 50th anniversary and the Thunderbirds flew 57 demonstrations that were viewed by more 12 million people. In 2003 the Thunderbirds celebrated their 50th anniversary and In June 2005, the Thunderbirds selected Major Nicole Malachowski for the No. 3 position, making her the first female to hold a pilot position in the team's 53-year history. In 2007 the team performed in Ireland, the United Kingdom, France, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania and Italy and also selected its second female pilot, Captain Samantha Weekes, who flew the No. 6 opposing solo position.



In 2009 it spread its wings wider, visiting Korea, Japan, Hawaii, Guam, Malaysia, Thailand and Australia where more than 1.2 million people watched the team's demonstration. All performances for the 2013 season were cancelled due to budget cuts. In 2014 the team celebrated its 60th show season with a first ever of appearance of a military jet formation aerobatic team at AirVenture in Oshkosh, the world's biggest aviation event and hundreds of thousands flocked to the event to be part of this historic occasion.



Performances by the Thunderbirds have not been only been seen by millions of people worldwide but also serves to celebrate all those that serves in the USAF. The Thunderbirds are truly the ambassadors of the USAF.


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