The Thunderbirds is the official name of the designated U.S. Air Force flight demonstration squadron. This is a special unit of the USAF which, although consisting of combat personnel, is normally dedicated to performing displays of aerobatic and formation flying at public venues in the United States and abroad. The motto of the squadron is 'America's Ambassadors in Blue' - a reference to the blue dress uniform of the U.S. Air Force. In time of war, the personnel and aircraft of the Thunderbirds unit can be rapidly integrated into other combat squadrons for deployment, although this has never been necessary.

The Unit

The Thunderbirds' official designation is the 'USAF Air Demonstration Squadron.' It is a unit of the Air Combat Command, and is based at Nellis AFB near Las Vegas, NV. The active unit roster consists of eight pilots (six demonstration pilots and two support pilots), several support officers, and around 120 enlisted personnel from all Air Force MOS who perform all maintenance and support work for the unit. The official unit name, as near as I can tell, is "United States Air Force Thunderbirds" which is what is on their web page. So I don't know whether 'Thunderbirds' or 'the Thunderbirds' is more appropriate, but given that all the times the latter appears on the unit page the 'the' isn't capitalized, I'm going with 'Thunderbirds.' Not like it matters. :-)

The unit flies many demonstrations yearly - limited to 88, but often crowding that number. They train continuously, as half the team is replaced each year. Pilots serve two-year tours with the unit, and enlisted personnel three or four-year hitches.

The Name

The name of the unit is taken from Native American mythology of the Southwest - the 'Thunderbird' is a mythical creature of great power whose wingbeat was said to be the cause of thunder. The name is apt in several ways - the demonstrations involve much 'close proximity' to powerful fighter aircraft, with associated jet noise. In addition, the unit was originally created at Luke AFB, which was near Phoenix, AZ - and the Phoenix is another powerful mythological bird. Finally, the first official aircraft of the unit was the F-84G Thunderjet, an early straight-wing subsonic jet fighter.

The Planes

Over the years, the unit has flown many different types of aircraft, but almost always aircraft which were in active front-line service with the U.S. Air Force at the time (the exception was the T-38, below). As mentioned above, the unit was formed using the F-84G Thunderjet, but moved on quickly to supersonic aircraft.

The Record

The Thunderbirds have been flying for over 55 years. In that time, they have flown over 4,000 airshows.

Two Thunderbirds pilots to date have been killed during airshow performances: In June, 1972 Major Joe Howard (Thunderbird 3, one of the two side aircraft in the traditional 'diamond' formation) suffered a structural failure of his Phantom II's horizontal stabilizer during the Transpo 72 show at Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C.. Although he ejected from the aircraft as it fell to earth from around 1,500 feet, he was caught in the explosion as the plane was destroyed.

In 1981, Captain David Hauck (Thunderbird 6, one of the two 'solo' aircraft) was killed during a low approach at Hill AFB in Utah.

In addition, at least thirty-eight other airmen have lost their lives due to mishap either while training or on other active Air Force duties while assigned to the Thunderbirds over the years. The worst training crash came in 1982, when four T-38s in the Diamond formation flew into the ground following their lead pilot at Indian Springs, killing all four pilots. The worst single incident, however, was in 1958. 19 men aboard the team's support C-123 transport were killed when the aircraft struck a flock of geese.

Historical Tidbits

  • The original unit designation was the 3600 Air Demonstration Team.
  • While using the T-38 Talon, the unit did not perform overseas - this was because the T-38 was not capable of in-flight refueling and couldn't be ferried.
  • The switch from the F-4 Phantom to the T-38 trainer was partially motivated by the 1973 oil crisis - five T-38s used the same amount of fuel as a single F-4 Phantom.
  • The now-standard white paint scheme on Thunderbirds aircraft originated with the F-4. Service F-4s used camoflage paint schemes or were unpainted. The brighter colored paints used on the team F-100s were unsuitable - due to the more advanced alloys used in the F-4's skin to withstand high Mach flight, the 'show' paints bubbled and discolored. A new paint was developed, and white was the best 'highly visible' color that could be easily obtained - so white it was.
  • The Thunderbirds have never cancelled a demonstration due to maintenance problems. Today, that's not as impressive, as the unit has 11 aircraft to support six flying roles, but in earlier years they had eight.