The Thunderbirds are the Air Demonstration Squadron of the U.S. Air Force, based at Nellis AFB in Las Vegas, Nevada. The squadron tours the U.S. and much of the world, performing aerobatic formation and solo flying in specially-marked USAF jet aircraft.
Officers serve a two-year assignment with the squadron, while enlisted personnel serve three to four. Replacements must be trained for about half of the team each year, providing a constant mix of experience.
The squadron performs no more than 88 air demonstrations each year and has never canceled a demonstration due to maintenance difficulty. In addition to their air demonstration responsibilities, the Thunderbirds are part of the USAF combat force and a component of the 57th Wing. If required, the team's personnel and aircraft can be rapidly integrated into a fighter unit at Nellis AFB.
The Squadron was activated, after 6 months training in an unofficial status, on January 1, 1953 as the 3600th Air Demonstration Team at Luke AFB, just west of Phoenix. They flew their debut exhibition at Luke a week later, and began public exhibitions at the 1953 Cheyenne Frontier Days in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The team had flown 26 shows by that August. The first team leader was Major General Dick Catledge, and the first plane flown by the squadron was the F-84 Thunderjet. As the F-84G Thunderjet was a single seat fighter, a 2 seat T-33 Shooting Star served as the narrator's aircraft and was used as the VIP/Press ride aircraft. The T-33 served with the Thunderbirds in this capacity in the 1950s & 1960s.
The next year, the Thunderbirds performed their first overseas air shows, in a tour of South America. A year later, in 1955, they moved to the F-84F Thunderstreak aircraft, in which they performed 91 air shows. The aircraft of the squadron was again changed in June 1956, to the F-100 Super Sabre, which gave the pilots supersonic capability. This switch was accompanied by a move of headquarters to Nellis AFB, Nevada on June 1 with their first show after the move being held on June 23. It also signaled a shift in their performance routine—for example, the Cuban 8 opening routine was dropped, and emphasis was placed on low, screaming flyovers and demonstrations of takeoff performance. For a time, if the show's sponsor permitted it, the pilots would create a "sonic boom" (this ended when the FAA banned supersonic flight over the continental U.S.)
In 1960 a decision was made to allow the tail (vertical stabilizer) of the #4 slot plane, blackened by the exhaust of the other planes, to remain black. (Contrary to rumor, the stabilizer was never painted black.) This practice remained in force through the 1973 season. In 1961, the team was compelled to discontinue the vertical bank maneuver due to an FAA regulation prohibiting aerobatics that pointed the nose of the aircraft toward the crowd. 1962 saw the introduction of dual solo routines, and the Thunderbirds went on their first European deployment in 1963, the year after the disbanding of the "Skyblazers" (see below). The team switched to the F-105 Thunderchief for a brief period, but returned to the F-100 in 1964 after only six airshows, following Capt. Gene Devlin's death resulting from structural failure of the aircraft in a high-G climbing maneuver. The F-100 was also judged to be more maneuverable for demonstration displays, and was retained through the 1968 season.
By 1967, the Thunderbirds had flown 1,000 shows. In 1969, the squadron adopted the noisy and huge F-4E Phantom, which it flew until 1973, the only time the Thunderbirds would fly jets similar to those of the Blue Angels, as it was the standard fighter for both services. A special white paint had to be developed to cover high-temperature metals, replacing the bare metal paint scheme of past planes. The white paint scheme has been continued to the present. Due to the 1973 oil crisis, the team was grounded for some time. In 1974 they switched to the more economical T-38 Talon, a supersonic trainer based on the F-5 fighter. Five T-38s used the same amount of fuel needed for one F-4 Phantom. The switch to the T-38 also saw an alteration of the flight routine to exhibit the aircraft's maneuverability in tight turns, and also ended the era of the black tail on the #4 slot plane, which would now be regularly cleaned and shined like the others.
In 1982, there was another disaster for the Thunderbirds, occurring during pre-season training on January 18. While practicing the 4 plane diamond loop, the formation impacted the ground at high speed, instantly killing all four pilots: Major Norm Lowry, leader, Captain Willie Mays, Captain Pete Peterson and Captain Mark Melancon. The cause of the crash was officially listed by the USAF as the result of a mechanical problem with the #1 aircraft's control stick actuator. During formation flight, the wing and slot pilots visually cue off of the #1 lead aircraft, completely disregarding their positions in relation to the ground.
In 1983, the team returned to front-line fighters with the General Dynamics F-16A Fighting Falcon. They would change to the updated F-16C (now Lockheed-Martin) in 1992, an aircraft which has proven its outstanding effectiveness in both air-to-ground and air superiority competitions.
After switching to the F-16s the Thunderbirds had no major incidents until September 14, 2003 when #6 Pilot, opposing solo, Capt. Chris Strickland failed to calibrate his altimeter to the elevation of Mountain Home AFB where their flight demonstration was to be held. He instead flew with the same settings as their home base of Nellis AFB their home base. Moments after the start of the show Capt. Strickland sent his White F16 thundering down the runway, pulling vertical then rolling his aircraft over to perform a Split-S, his first maneuver of the show. To the shock and horror of the onlookers, Stricklands aircraft failed to complete the maneuver and instead smashed into the ground less than 500 yards from spectators. "It was really quiet," remembers Michael Draper, who saw the crash first hand. "Nobody said a word until we saw the pilot stand up. Everyone shouted 'he got out! he got out!' he got out at the last second."
In 1986, the Thunderbirds did a fly-by for the re-dedication of the Statue of Liberty in New York City, which was viewed by tens of millions. They also performed the first American military demonstration in a Communist country when the team visited Beijing, China in 1987. Their 3,000th air show was performed in 1990. In 1996, the team participated in the Atlanta Olympics' opening ceremonies, which were viewed by an estimated 3.5 billion people worldwide. The squadron celebrated its 50th anniversary on June 1, 2003.
In June 2005 the Thunderbirds accepted Captain Nicole Malachowski as the squadron's first ever female pilot and in 2006 the first ever female solo pilot, Captain Samantha Weeks, was added to the officer list. In 2008 she became the first ever female lead solo.
Also in 2005, the Thunderbirds temporarily grounded themselves pending an investigation into a minor mid-air incident during the Chicago Air & Water Show on August 20. During a diamond formation slow-roll pass, the tip of the missile rail on the right wing of the slot (#4) aircraft contacted the left stabilator of the right (#3) aircraft. A four-foot section of the missile rail snapped off, while the #3 aircraft sustained damage described by one of the Thunderbirds pilots as a "medium deep scratch" to the red paint of the stabilator. Amateur video showed the missile rail falling into the "safety box" on Lake Michigan away from boaters. While there were no injuries and the aircraft remained apparently flightworthy, the demonstration was immediately terminated, all aircraft returned to Gary International Airport, and the Thunderbirds did not return for the second day of the Chicago show. The Right Winger (#3) was Major D. Chris Callahan, and the Slot position (#4) was flown by Major Steve Horton.
The 2007 European Goodwill Tour was conceived as an opportunity to spread international goodwill and demonstrate the pride, precision and professionalism of Airmen worldwide. It was the Thunderbirds’ first visit to Europe after the tragic events of 9-11 and the team took to this monumental challenge with tenacity. History was made at the first stop during an expertly coordinated flag-panel unveiling in Ireland, which highlighted the Thunderbirds’ first-ever air show performance in the country. Despite inclement weather, more than 100,000 people attended the air show, garnering nationwide exposure by Irish media. Coverage also spanned the globe when Air Force Link posted the story and photos provided by the team.
Additional stops along the way included aerial demonstrations in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria's Graf Ignatievo Air Base, Italy, France and England, where the Thunderbirds participated in The Royal International Air Tattoo, world’s largest air show. VIPs in attendance included Parliament and even British royalty. Outside of aerial demonstrations, the team participated in eight official public relations events attended by heads of state and local civic leaders. There were also multiple community visits with needy children throughout the European theater in an effort to make new friends and eliminate the stereotypical Eastern view of Americans as the world’s police. It took months of planning and hundreds of man-hours to pull it off, but the five-week trip to seven different European countries was diplomatic, historic and sensational.
On November 10 and November 11, 2007, the City of Las Vegas and Nellis AFB saluted the U.S. Air Force, hosting the capstone event of the USAF's 60th anniversary celebration. Those that came to this historic event witnessed some of the best aerobatic performances and aerial demonstrations seen anywhere in the world. Thanks to endorsement and sponsorship by Las Vegas, Aviation Nation was the most publicized air show in America with more than $680,000 in guaranteed media reaching regional, national and international audiences through an extensive advertising and promotions program.
While the above schedule has been approved, it is subject to change. For up-to-date information and complete details about the Air Force Thunderbirds, visit their official website
Republic F-84F Thunderstreak 1954-1956 Mindful of their mission to show the Air Force’s best aircraft, the Air Force selected the swept wing F-84F Thunderstreak as their second aircraft in 1955. The Thunderstreak was modified for the team by adding smoke tanks for the first time, and red, white and blue drag chutes.
North American F-100C Super Sabre 1956-1963 The USAF's first operational supersonic aircraft. With the move from the F-84F to the F-100 Super Sabre in 1956, the Thunderbirds became the world’s first supersonic aerial demonstration team. That same year, the Thunderbirds moved to Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, simplifying logistics and maintenance for the aircraft.
Republic F-105B Thunderchief 1964 (only 6 shows flown in type) Largest and heaviest single engine fighter ever produced.
North American F-100D Super Sabre 1964-1968
McDonnell F-4E Phantom II 1969-1973 The F-4’s conversion was the most extensive in the team’s history. Among other modifications, paints that had worked on the F-100 made the F-4 look patchy because of multicolored alloys used in the F-4 to resist heat and friction at Mach 2 speeds. As a result, a polyurethane paint base was developed and used to cover the problem. The white paint base remains a part of today’s Thunderbird aircraft. In addition, given the exhaust output of the F-4's J79 engines, the vertical stabilizer of the #4 slot aircraft was painted flat black.
Northrop T-38 Talon 1974-1981 1974 brought with it a fuel crisis and as a result a new aircraft for the team, the sleek, swift and highly maneuverable Northrop T-38A Talon, the Air Force’s first supersonic trainer. Economically, the T-38 was unmatched. Five T-38s used the same amount of fuel needed for one F-4 Phantom, and fewer people and less equipment were required to maintain the aircraft.
Although the Talon did not fulfill the Thunderbird tradition of flying front-line jet fighters, it did meet the criteria of demonstrating the capabilities of a prominent Air Force aircraft.
General Dynamics F-16A/B Fighting Falcon 1983-1991 During the switch to the F-16A the Thunderbirds acquired new block 15 aircraft which they operated for about 10 years making the team one of the last USAF units flying the older F-16A's before transitioning into new C's. They also operated the two-seat F-16B during this time for training new pilots and for VIP flights, these being replaced by the F-16D when the rest of the squadron transitioned to the F-16C.
Lockheed Martin F-16C/D Fighting Falcon 1992-Current The block 32H/J aircraft currently assigned to the Thunderbirds were built in 1986 & 1987 and are some of the oldest operational F-16s in the Air Force. (Lockheed purchased the General Dynamics division which makes the F-16 (Fort Worth, TX) in 1993.) Recently the team accepted its first block 52 model with various upgrades to the avionics, landing gear and more. While the new-to-the-squadron jets are upgrades, they are still some of the oldest F-16s in the Air Force inventory. Plans are to accept several more throughout 2008 and transition completely to the block 52 model for aerial demonstrations for the 2009 show season.
The team continues to fly the F-16 today, having switched from the "A" to "C" version in 1992. These are nearly identical to current combat aircraft; it takes just a few minor modifications for an F-16C to be made ready for the Thunderbirds. These changes include the replacement of the 20 mm cannon and ammunition drum with a smoke-generating system, including its plumbing and control switches, the removal of the jet fuel starter exhaust door, and the application of the Thunderbirds' glossy red, white, and blue polyurethane paint scheme. All of the modification work is performed at the maintenance depot at Hill AFB near Ogden, Utah.
From the end of the runway the 4-ship Thunderbird team get ready to begin their take-off roll with the words "Thunderbirds run em up!" being retransmitted from the team leader's mic through the PA system for the anxiously awaiting crowd to hear.
Diamond: As Thunderbirds 1 through 4 lift off the slot aircraft slips immediately into position behind 1 to create the signature Diamond formation in the climb passing by the crowd and into a rolling turn at the departure end of the field and set up for their first pass the diamond clover loop.
Thunderbird 5 then executes a Dirty Roll immediately following take-off.
Thunderbird 6 then takes off and executes a Split-S.
Solos: Thunderbird 5 takes to the air next performing a clean low altitude aileron roll followed by 6 who performs a split-s climbing in a near vertical maneuver rolling over and diving back toward show center pulling up just above the runway and exiting in the opposite direction.
Much of the Thunderbirds' display alternates between maneuvers performed by the diamond, and those performed by the solos. The diamond performs maneuvers in tight formation such as formation loops and rolls or transitions from one formation to another. The opposing solos usually perform their maneuvers just under the speed of sound, and show off the capabilities of their individual F-16s by doing maneuver such as fast passes, slow passes, fast rolls, slow rolls, and very tight turns. Some of their maneuvers include both solo F-16s at once, such as opposing passes (where the solos fly towards each other in what appears to be a collision course, and seem to narrowly miss each other) and mirror formations (their two F-16s being flown back-to-back in the calypso pass or belly-to-belly. In such formations, one Thunderbird must of course be inverted, and it is always Thunderbird number 5. In fact, the "5" on this aircraft is painted on upside down, and thus appears right-side-up for much of the routine). At the end of the routine, all six aircraft join in formation, forming the Delta. There is also an extra amount of humor regarding the inverted performance of Thunderbird Five: the pilots all wear tailored flight suits with their name and jet number embroidered on the left breast. The 5 is sewn inverted.
One of the Thunderbirds' standing engagements is the annual commencement ceremony at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. The jets fly over Falcon Stadium at the precise moment the cadets throw their hats into the air at ceremony's end.
The Thunderbirds have performed at over 4,000 airshows worldwide, accumulating millions of miles in hundreds of different airframes over the course of their 54+ years of service.
Flying high performance fighter jets is inherently dangerous; when flying in extremely close formation the danger is compounded. The team has suffered two fatal crashes during air shows.
The first was the death of Major Joe Howard flying Thunderbird 3 on June 4, 1972 at Dulles Airport, during Transpo 72. His Phantom (F-4E s/n# 66-0321) experienced a structural failure of the horizontal stabilizer. Maj Howard ejected as the aircraft fell back to earth from about 1,500 feet tail first and descended under a good canopy, but was too close to the explosion fireball and did not survive. The second death occurred May 9, 1981 at Hill AFB, Utah, when Captain David "Nick" Hauck flying Thunderbird 6 crashed while attempting to execute a slow speed manuver. The high pressure elevation and subtly rising terrain coupled with Capt Hauck's slow speed put him in a dangerous flight envelope. He hit the ground before realizing his precarious situation. The aircraft hit a large oak tree and a barn, then slid across a field and flipped as it traversed an irrigation canal, ultimately erupting into a fireball just a few hundred feet from the runway's end. No one on the ground was injured even though the wreck occurred adjacent to a roadway packed with onlookers.
The first USAF jet-powered aerobatic demo team was the "Acrojets", performing early in 1949 with F-80Cs at the USAF Fighter School at Williams Air Force Base, Arizona, and was headed by Col. Howard W. "Suede" Jensen. This team flew together until August 1950, when it was deactivated due to the American commitment to the Korean War. Additionally, there was also a later USAFE "Acrojets" team in Germany, this one made up of USAF T-33 Shooting Star instructor pilots at Fürstenfeldbruck AB in the mid-1950s.
The "Skyblazers" were the USAF demonstration team representing the United States Air Forces Europe (USAFE) from the late 1940s through the 1950s. This team was formed in early 1949 by a group of 22d Fighter Squadron pilots from the 36th Fighter Wing at Fürstenfeldbruck AB in Germany. At this time they were flying Lockheed F80B Shooting Stars. The unit transitioned to the F-84E in 1950, the F-86F in 1955 and the F-100C in 1956. Unlike the Thunderbirds, the Skyblazers seldom appeared outside of the realm of USAFE operations in Europe.
The Skyblazers were disbanded in January 1962 when their home squadron was rotated back to the United States and their assigned aircraft transitioned to the F-105 Thunderchief.