The Thunderbirds are the aerial demonstration squadron of the U.S. Air Force (USAF), based at Nellis AFB in Las Vegas, Nevada. The squadron tours the United States and much of the world, performing aerial formation and solo flying in specially-marked USAF F-16 Fighting Falcon 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 USAF Thunderbirds are part of the USAF combat force and if required, can be rapidly integrated into an operational fighter unit. Since February 15, 1974 the Thunderbirds have been a component of the 57th Wing at Nellis AFB.
The Thunderbirds were activated on May 25, 1953 as the 3600th Air Demonstration Team at Luke AFB, just west of Phoenix. Nowadays, they are officially designated the USAF Air Demonstration Squadron, and were activated as such on February 13, 1967.
The Thunderbirds also carry the lineage of the 30th Bombardment Squadron, with which they were consolidated on September 19, 1985. The 30th was originally known as the 30th Aero Squadron, and was established on June 13, 1917 to serve in France during World War I. The squadron was later reconstituted and redesignated the 30th Bomb Squadron of the 19th Bomb Group, and saw combat in the Pacific theater during World War II as both a B-17 Flying Fortress and B-29 Superfortress squadron, and in the Korean War flying the B-29. It then became a component of the Strategic Air Command, equipped with B-47 Stratojet and B-52 Stratofortress bombers before its inactivation in 1963.
The Thunderbirds flew their debut exhibition at Luke AFB in early June 1953, 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 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 move of headquarters to Nellis AFB, Nevada on June 1 because of maintenance and logisitical difficulties of basing the F-100s at Luke, 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.). The move to Nellis also resulted in the first assignment of buildings and hangar space to the team.
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 Navy's 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.
USAF Thunderbird Aircraft History
Republic F-84G Thunderjet
Employed by the Thunderbirds from 1953–1954.
Republic F-84F Thunderstreak
The Air Force selected the swept-wing F-84F Thunderstreak as their second aircraft in 1955, modified for the team by adding smoke tanks, and red, white and blue drogue parachutes. Used from 1955–1956.
North American F-100C Super Sabre
With the change 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. The Thunderbirds used the C-model Super Sabre from 1956–1963.
Republic F-105B Thunderchief
Only six shows were flown in 1964 using the F-105 before safety concerns resulted in the team's adoption of the F-100D.
An F-100D on display at the National Museum of the United States Air ForceNorth American F-100D Super Sabre
The D-model Super Sabres were used from 1964–1968.
McDonnell F-4E Phantom II
The 1969 conversion to the F-4 was the most extensive in the team’s history. Among other modifications, paints that had worked on the F-100 appeared blotchy on the F-4 because of multicolored alloys used to resist heat and friction at Mach 2 speeds. A polyurethane paint base was developed to resolve the problem. The white paint base remains a part of today’s Thunderbird aircraft. A popular myth is, given the exhaust emissions of the F-4's engines, the vertical stabilizer of the #4 slot aircraft was painted flat black. This is however false and the vertical stabilizer of the #4 slot aircraft was allowed to be blackened by jet exhaust starting in 1960. Phantoms were used from 1969–1973.
The fuel crisis of the early 1970s resulted selection of the Northrop T-38A Talon, a supersonic trainer. Five T-38s used the same amount of fuel needed for one F-4 Phantom, and fewer people and equipment were required to maintain the aircraft. Although it met the criteria of demonstrating the capabilities of a prominent Air Force aircraft, the Talon did not fulfil the Thunderbird tradition of flying front-line jet fighters. The team flew the Talon from 1974–1981.
Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon
In 1982 the team switched to the F-16A Fighting Falcon; this transition had been under consideration before the "Diamond Crash" during training season in January. The team sat out the 1982 airshow season and spent that year retraining and transiting over into the new aircraft to ready themselves for the 1983 season. 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 of the modification work is performed at the maintenance depot at Hill AFB near Ogden, Utah.