USAF Air Demonstration Squadron
|Active||25 May 1953 – present|
(as air demonstration squadron)
13 June 1917 – 1 February 1963
(as operational squadron)
|Branch||United States Air Force|
|Role||Aerobatic display team|
132 enlisted support personnel
|Part of||Air Combat Command|
|Garrison/HQ||Nellis Air Force Base|
Las Vegas, Nevada
|Colors||Red, White and Blue|
World War I
World War II (Pacific Theater)
|Commander/Leader||Col John Caldwell|
|CEM||CMSgt Timothy T. Johnson|
|Fighter||six F-16C Fighting Falcons|
two F-16D Fighting Falcons
The USAF Air Demonstration Squadron ("Thunderbirds") is the air demonstration squadron of the United States Air Force (USAF). The Thunderbirds are assigned to the 57th Wing, and are based at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. Created 68 years ago in 1953, the USAF Thunderbirds are the third-oldest formal flying aerobatic team (under the same name) in the world, after the French Air Force Patrouille de France formed in 1931 and the United States Navy Blue Angels formed in 1946.
The Thunderbirds Squadron tours the United States and much of the world, performing aerobatic formation and solo flying in specially marked aircraft. The squadron's name is taken from the legendary creature that appears in the mythologies of several indigenous North American cultures.
The Thunderbirds Squadron is a named USAF squadron, meaning it does not carry a numerical designation. It is also one of the oldest squadrons in the Air Force, its origins dating to the organization of the 30th Aero Squadron, formed at Kelly Field, Texas, on 13 June 1917.
Officers serve a two-year assignment with the squadron, while enlisted personnel serve three to four years. As the squadron performs no more than 88 air demonstrations each year, replacements must be trained for about half of the team each year, in order to provide a constant mix of experience. In addition to their air demonstration responsibilities, the Thunderbirds are part of the USAF combat force and if required, can be rapidly integrated into an operational fighter unit. Since 15 February 1974 the Thunderbirds have been a component of the 57th Wing at Nellis AFB. Since 1953, they have flown in front of more than 300 million people.
The Thunderbirds perform aerial demonstrations in the F-16C Fighting Falcon, and they also fly two F-16D twin-seat trainers.
The F-16 has been the demonstration aircraft for the Thunderbirds since the 1983 season. In January 1982, four members of the squadron were killed in what became known as the "Diamond Crash" of T-38 Talon aircraft which the squadron had flown since 1974. Partially as a result of that accident, the squadron switched to the F-16A, and sat out the 1982 airshow season and spent that year retraining and transitioning over to the new aircraft to ready themselves for the 1983 season. The F-16, however, had been considered for transition prior to the accident. In rebuilding the Thunderbird Team, the Air Force recruited previous Thunderbird pilots, qualified each in the F-16A, and had them begin by flying "two-ship" maneuvers, then expanded the program one airplane at a time up to the full six airplanes. Beginning in June 1982, the F-16 Thunderbirds were led by Major Jim Latham.
The team continues to fly the F-16, having switched from the F-16A to the F-16C in 1992. Only a few minor modifications differentiate a Thunderbird from an operational F-16C. These 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 the modification work is performed at the maintenance depot at Hill AFB near Ogden, Utah. Other than those modifications, the aircraft are taken from the standard USAF inventory as production fighters, and can be returned to an operational squadron in short order without any major modification.
From the end of the runway the four-ship Thunderbird team get ready to begin their takeoff roll with the words "Thunderbirds, let's run em up!" being retransmitted from the team leader's mic through the PA system for the crowd to hear.
Diamond: Historically, as Thunderbirds 1 through 4 lift off, the slot aircraft slips immediately into position behind 1 to create the signature Diamond formation. Thanks to the 2009 upgrade to the Block 52, the Diamond now has more than enough thrust to continue to climb straight up into their first maneuver, the Diamond Loop.
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 and pulling up just above the runway to exit in the opposite direction.
Much of the Thunderbirds' display alternates between maneuvers performed by the diamond, and those performed by the solos. They have a total of eight different formations: The Diamond, Delta, Stinger, Arrowhead, Line-Abreast, Trail, Echelon and the Five Card. The Arrowhead involves maneuvers in tight formation with as little as 18 inches (46 cm) fuselage to canopy separation. They perform formation loops and rolls or transitions from one formation to another. All maneuvers are performed at speeds of 450 to 500 mph (720 to 800 km/h).
The opposing solos usually perform their maneuvers just under the speed of sound (500 to 700 mph (800 to 1,130 km/h)), and show off the capabilities of their individual aircraft by doing maneuvers such as fast passes, slow passes, fast rolls, slow rolls, and very tight turns. Some of their maneuvers include both solo aircraft at once, such as opposing passes (passing in close proximity to each other) and mirror formations (two aircraft being flown back-to-back in the calypso pass or belly-to-belly). In mirror formations, one Thunderbird must be inverted, and it is always number 5. In fact, the number 5 on this aircraft is painted upside-down, and thus appears right-side-up for much of the routine. There is also an extra amount of humor regarding the inverted performance of Thunderbird 5: the pilots all wear tailored flight suits with their name and jet number embroidered on the left breast. The suit for the pilot of the number 5 airplane has the number sewn upside-down.
Nearing the end the Diamond pulls straight up into the vertical to perform the signature "Bomb Burst," where all four aircraft break off in separate directions while a solo goes straight up through the maneuver and performs aileron rolls until 3 miles (4.8 km) above the ground. At the end of the routine, all six aircraft join in formation, forming the Delta.
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.
On 19 September 1985, the USAF Air Demonstration Squadron was consolidated by Air Force Historical Research Agency (AFHRA) with the 30th Bombardment Squadron, a unit which was organized on 13 June 1917.
During its operational history, the 30th served in World War I as a training unit in France, its mission to train fighter pilots to go into combat on the Western Front. The squadron was almost torpedoed on its troop ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Stationed at Clark Field in the Philippines on 7 December 1941, it was almost wiped out in the 1941 Battle of the Philippines. Some members of the squadron fought as an infantry unit and were captured by the Japanese, being subjected to the Bataan Death March. The squadron was withdrawn to Australia, being reformed and later attacked Japan as a B-29 Superfortress squadron in 1945. It was awarded nine Presidential Unit Citations in World War II. During the Korean War, the 30th attacked North Korean targets with B-29 Superfortresses.
Present-day USAF Thunderbirds carry the lineage, history, and honors of the 30th on active duty.
The team had flown 26 shows by that August. The first team leader was Major Richard C. Catledge (1953–1954), and the first plane used by the unit was the straight-wing F-84G Thunderjet. Because the Thunderjet was a single-seat fighter, a two-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 and 1960s.
The next year the Thunderbirds performed their first overseas air shows, in a tour of South and Central America, and added a permanent solo routine to the demonstration. In the spring of 1955, under their second commander/leader (September 1954 – February 1957), Captain Jacksel M. Broughton, they moved to the swept-wing F-84F Thunderstreak aircraft, in which they performed 91 air shows, and received their first assigned support aircraft, a C-119 Flying Boxcar.
The Thunderbirds' aircraft were again changed in June 1956, to the F-100C Super Sabre, which gave the team supersonic capability. This switch was accompanied by a relocation of their headquarters to Nellis AFB, Nevada on 1 June because of maintenance and logistical difficulties of basing the F-100s at Luke, with their first show after the move being held on 23 June. It also signaled a shift in their performance routine—for example, the Cuban Eight 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 United States. The move to Nellis also resulted in the first assignment of buildings and hangar space to the team.
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. The year 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 the 1964 season, but were forced to re-equip with the F-100D after only six airshows due to a catastrophic structural failure of the No. 2 aircraft during a pitch-up maneuver that resulted in the death of Capt Gene Devlin at Hamilton Air Force Base on 9 May. The F-100D Super Sabre was retained through the 1968 season.
By 1967, the Thunderbirds had flown 1,000 shows. In 1969, the squadron re-equipped with the front-line 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 in the 1960s and 1970s.
Due to the 1973 oil crisis, the team flew only six air shows and was grounded for some time. However, in 1974 they switched to the more economical T-38 Talon. Five T-38s used the same amount of fuel needed for one F-4 Phantom. The switch saw an alteration of the flight routine to exhibit the aircraft's maneuverability in tight turns, and ended the era of the black tail on the No. 4 slot plane, now regularly cleaned and shined like the others.
In 1982, 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: Major Norman L. Lowry (commander/leader), Captain Willie Mays, Captain Joseph N. "Pete" Peterson, and Captain Mark Melancon. The cause of the crash was determined by the USAF to be the result of a mechanical problem with the No. 1 aircraft's control stick actuator. This resulted in insufficient back pressure by the formation leader on the T-38 control stick during the loop. Visually cueing off of the lead aircraft during formation maneuvering, the wing and slot pilots disregarded their positions relative to the ground.[Note 1]
The team's activities were suspended for six months pending investigation of the crashes and review of the program, then reinstituted using the General Dynamics F-16A Fighting Falcon in 1983, 38 years ago, and were upgraded to the F-16C (now produced by Lockheed Martin) in 1992.
In 1986, the Thunderbirds did a fly-by for the re-dedication of the Statue of Liberty in New York City. 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, and in 1991 the team went overseas to perform air shows in Switzerland, Poland, and Hungary. The team traveled abroad again in 1996, visiting Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovenia. Also in 1996, the team participated in the Atlanta Olympics' opening ceremonies.
The United States Postal Service honored the Air Force's 50th anniversary as a separate branch of the military in 1997 with a limited edition stamp featuring the Thunderbirds.
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, during Maj. Malachowski's final season as a Thunderbird, the team selected its second female pilot, Captain Samantha Weeks, who flew the No. 6 opposing solo position.
The 2007 European Goodwill Tour was the Thunderbirds's first visit to Europe after the 11 September attacks. During this tour, the Thunderbirds performed at their first-ever air show in Ireland. Despite inclement weather, more than 100,000 people attended the air show, garnering nationwide exposure by Irish media. 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, the world's largest air show. Outside of aerial demonstrations, the team participated in eight official public relations events attended by heads of state and local civic leaders. The team also conducted community outreach by meeting with needy children throughout Europe.
In 2008, the Thunderbirds remained in North America, performing both in the United States and in Canada. When Quebec City celebrated its 400th anniversary, the Thunderbirds joined the Canadian Forces's Snowbirds, the British Royal Air Force's Red Arrows, and the United States Navy's Blue Angels in a ceremonial flight over Quebec City. Later in the year, the team returned to Canada for two shows in Abbotsford, British Columbia.
In 2009 the Thunderbirds hired their first-ever Air National Guard pilot, Lt. Col. Derek Routt as Thunderbird No. 7 (operations officer), and the first-ever Reserve pilot, Maj. Sean Gustafson, also joined the team as Thunderbird No. 4 (slot).
The 2009 Far East Tour took the team to multiple locations on the western border of the Pacific Rim and included performances in Hawaii, Australia, Malaysia, Guam, Thailand, Japan, and South Korea. More than 1.2 million people saw the shows in person and more than 120 million were exposed to the shows through their national media. These are conservative estimates as one Korean prime-time television show alone reached eight million.[original research?] The top-rated show "Qualifications of Man" did a one-hour feature on the Thunderbirds and resulted from a coordinated media pitch to the network and the Republic of Korea Air Force. In addition to the air shows, the Thunderbirds personally met and spent time with more than five hundred special needs children and orphans.
The entire 2013 flying season was canceled due to budget cuts resulting from the United States fiscal cliff. Team members made recruiting appearances in the Las Vegas area that did not require travel. Enlisted personnel performed gate checks and base housing inspections. Performances resumed in 2014.
The Thunderbirds have performed at over 4,000 airshows worldwide, accumulating millions of miles in hundreds of different airframes over the course of their more than fifty-four years of service. Flying high-performance fighter jets is inherently dangerous; when flying in extremely close formation, the danger is compounded. In total, twenty-one Thunderbirds pilots have been killed in the team's history. Only three fatal crashes have occurred during air shows, two of them in jets:
The first was the death of Major Joe Howard, flying Thunderbird No. 3 (F-4E s/n 66-0321) on 4 June 1972 at Dulles Airport, during Transpo 72. His Phantom experienced a structural failure of the horizontal stabilizer, and Major Howard ejected as the aircraft fell back to earth tail first from about 1,500 feet and descended under a good canopy, but he landed in the aircraft fireball and did not survive.
The second death occurred 9 May 1981 at Hill AFB, Utah, when Captain David "Nick" Hauck flying Thunderbird No. 6 (T-38A) crashed while performing the hi-lo Maneuver. Capt Hauck crashed while attempting to land his ailing T-38 after an engine malfunctioned and caught fire. With black smoke billowing from the exhaust and the aircraft losing altitude in a high nose-up attitude, the safety officer on the ground radioed Capt Hauck: "You're on fire, punch out!" To that, he responded: "Hang on ... we have a bunch of people down there". The aircraft continued to stay airborne for about half a mile before hitting a large oak tree and a barn, then sliding across a field and flipping 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 accident 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 (then Capt) Howard W. "Swede" Jensen. This team flew together until August 1950, when it was inactivated 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 Air Base in Germany. At this time they were flying Lockheed F-80B Shooting Stars. The unit transitioned to the F-84E in 1950, the F-86F in 1955 and the F-100C in 1956. Two of the original Skyblazer team members, identical twins C.A. "Bill" and C.C. "Buck" Pattillo, went on to become members of the first Thunderbird team.
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.
The "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" were a group of four C-130 pilots and their planes who were officially recognized as an aerial demonstration team by the USAF's Tactical Air Command in 1957. They flew as an aerial demonstration team until 1960.
The Air Force maintains a Thunderbirds Museum covering the history of the demonstration team. The museum is located at Nellis Air Force Base and includes a full size F-16 "Gate Guard" on display (in full Thunderbird paint scheme).
4520th Air Demonstration Squadron
USAF Air Demonstration Squadron
4520th Air Demonstration Squadron
USAF Air Demonstration Squadron
4520th Air Demonstration Squadron
USAF Air Demonstration Squadron
Below are some of the more notable members of the Thunderbirds:
The T-birds have performed spectacular aerial maneuvers for more than 300 million spectators around the world.
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