The USAF Air Demonstration Squadron ("Thunderbirds") is the air
demonstration squadron of the
United States Air Force
2 Demonstration routine 3 History
3.1 USAF Thunderbirds history
3.1.1 F-84 Thunderjet/Thunderstreak era
F-100 Super Sabre
126.96.36.199 Air shows 188.8.131.52 Other fatalities
3.1.8 Relationship to other USAF aerial demonstration teams 3.1.9 Thunderbirds museum
3.2 USAF Thunderbirds Decorations 3.3 Lineage 3.4 Assignments 3.5 Stations 3.6 Aircraft
4 See also 5 References 6 External links
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
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
The Thunderbirds performing the crossover break.
The Thunderbirds perform aerial demonstrations in the F-16C Fighting
Falcon, and they also fly two F-16D twin-seat trainers.
General Dynamics F-16A/B Fighting Falcon During the switch to the F-16A the Thunderbirds acquired new block 15 aircraft which they operated from 1983 to 1991, 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.
Two F-16s demonstrate a Reflection Pass
Boeing C-17 Globemaster III
The Thunderbirds performing their signature bomb burst maneuver.
From the end of the runway the 4-ship Thunderbird team get ready to begin their take-off 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.
Two Thunderbirds perform a calypso pass.
Much of the Thunderbirds' display alternates between maneuvers performed by the diamond, and those performed by the solos. They have a total of 8 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).
TB4 slot pilot flies as close as 18 inches to the commander, TB1, during the arrowhead loop.
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 4 aircraft break off in
separate directions while a solo goes straight up through the maneuver
and performs aileron rolls until 3 miles 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
Republic F-84G Thunderjet
T-33A Shooting Star narrator/VIP/Press ride aircraft.
After six months training in an unofficial status, the Thunderbirds
were activated on 25 May 1953 as the 3600th Air Demonstration Team at
Luke AFB, just west of Phoenix.
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
F-100 Super Sabre
F-100 Super Sabre
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
F-4Es in Thunderbird livery, about 1972.
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
T-38 Talons in Thunderbird livery, about 1980.
Due to the 1973 oil crisis, the team only flew 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 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 No. 4 slot
plane, which would now be regularly cleaned and shined like the
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 #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]
Six Thunderbird F-16s in delta formation flying near the Empire State Building.
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.
They upgraded to the F-16C (now produced by Lockheed Martin) in 1992.
A Thunderbird solo aircraft flies by at nearly the speed of sound (700 mph).
Thunderbirds F-16s (including three spare aircraft, for a total of
nine) precisely lined up on the ramp at
In June 2005, the Thunderbirds selected Major
One of the Thunderbirds' maneuvers, the "delta burst."
The 2007 European Goodwill Tour was the Thunderbirds’s first visit
to Europe after the September 11th 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,
F-16A on display at the Museum of Aviation, Robins AFB; was flown by the Thunderbirds between 1982 - 1992.
In 2008, the Thunderbirds remained in North America, performing in
Republic F-84G Thunderjet Employed by the Thunderbirds from 1953–1954.
Republic F-84F Thunderstreak
The Air Force selected the swept-wing
North American F-100C Super Sabre
With the change to the
F-100 Super Sabre
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
North 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 No. 4 slot aircraft was painted flat black. However, this is false; the vertical stabilizer of the No. 4 slot aircraft was allowed to be blackened by jet exhaust starting in 1960. Phantoms were used from 1969 to 1973.
Accidents 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. The team has suffered three fatal crashes 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. Air shows
Captain Chris Stricklin ejects from his
24 September 1961: TSgt John Lesso of the Thunderbirds C-123 crew was
killed when an Air Force C-123 carrying the Army Golden Knights, on
which he was flight engineer, crashed during take-off at an airshow in
Wilmington, North Carolina.
4 June 1972: Major Joe Howard, flying Thunderbird No. 3 (F-4 s/n
66-0321), was killed during the Transpo '72 airshow at Dulles
International Airport in northern Virginia.
9 May 1981: Capt Nick Hauck was killed in the crash of Thunderbird No.
6 (Northrop T-38) during a low approach during an air show at Hill Air
Force Base, Utah.
14 September 2003: Captain Chris Stricklin, flying Thunderbird No. 6
(F-16), crashed during an airshow at Mountain Home AFB, Idaho.
Immediately after takeoff, Stricklin attempted a "Split S" maneuver
(which he had successfully performed over 200 times) based on an
incorrect mean-sea-level elevation of the airfield, 1,100 ft
(340 m) higher than the home base at Nellis. Climbing to only
1,670 ft (510 m) above ground level instead of 2,500 ft
(760 m), Stricklin had insufficient altitude to complete the
maneuver, but guided the F-16C aircraft down the runway away from the
spectators and ejected less than one second before impact. He survived
with only minor injuries and no one on the ground was injured, but the
$20 million aircraft was completely destroyed. Official procedure for
demonstration "split S" maneuvers was changed, and the USAF now
requires Thunderbird pilots and airshow ground controllers to both
work in above-MSL (mean-sea-level) altitudes, as opposed to ground
control working in AGL (above-ground-level) and pilots in MSL, which
led to two sets of numbers that had to be reconciled by the pilot.
Thunderbird pilots now also climb an extra 1,000 ft (300 m)
before performing the
11 December 1954: Capt George Kevil was killed during solo training at
Luke in an F-84G.
26 September 1957: 1st Lt Bob Rutte was killed in solo training at
9 October 1958: 19 men aboard the Thunderbirds' support C-123 were
killed in a crash about 50 miles northwest of Boise, Idaho, while en
route to McChord AFB, reportedly when the transport struck a flock of
12 March 1959: Capt C. D. "Fish" Salmon was killed in solo training at
27 July 1960: Capt J.R. Crane, advance pilot and narrator for the
team, was killed during a solo proficiency flight at Nellis.
6 April 1961: Maj Robert S. Fitzgerald, Commander of the team, and
Capt George Nial, advance pilot and narrator, were killed during a
training flight at Nellis.
9 May 1964: Capt Eugene J. "Gene" Devlin was killed when his Republic
F-105B broke apart as it pitched up for landing from a three-plane
formation pass over Hamilton Air Force Base, California.
12 October 1966: Maj Frank Liethen and Capt Robert Morgan were killed
in a collision of two F-100s during opposing Cuban Eights, their
F-100F crashing, at Indian Springs Auxiliary Field in Nevada. The
F-100D managed to land at Nellis AFB, despite wing damage.
9 January 1969: Capt Jack Thurman was killed in solo training at
21 December 1972: Capt Jerry Bolt and TSgt Charles Lynn were killed
during a flight test at Nellis.
25 July 1977: Capt Charlie Carter, Thunderbird pilot and narrator, was
fatally injured during maneuvers at F. E. Warren Air Force Base in
8 September 1981: Lt Col David L. Smith, commander of the
Thunderbirds, was killed when his aircraft ingested seagulls while
taking off from Cleveland, Ohio. Lt Col Smith's T-38 crashed into Lake
Erie, and although Lt Col Smith ejected from the airplane, his
ejection seat malfunctioned and did not deploy his parachute (his crew
chief successfully ejected from the rear cockpit).
18 January 1982: The "Diamond Crash", the worst training crash in
Thunderbird history, occurred when Maj Norman L. Lowry, Capt Willie
Mays, Capt Joseph N. Peterson, and Capt Mark Melancon were killed
while practicing a diamond loop during training at Indian Springs Air
Force Auxiliary Field in T-38s.
4 April 2018: Maj Stephen Del Bagno, slot pilot, was killed when his
aircraft, Thunderbird No. 4, crashed over the
Relationship to other USAF aerial demonstration teams
1950 photo of USAF Fighter School Acrojets demonstration team. Identified aircraft are Lockheed F-80C-10-LO Shooting Stars, 49-481, 49–508, 49–510, 49–511. 49–481 had been assigned to the 1st Fighter Group. The remainder were among the handful of F-80C-10s that did not see service in the Korean War.
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
Air Force Outstanding Unit Award
25 Feb 1967 – 31 Dec 1968; 1 Jan-31 Dec 1973; 1 Jan-31 Dec 1974; 1 Jan 1979 – 31 Dec 1980; 1 Jun 1995 – 31 May 1997; 1 Jun 2001 – 31 May 2003; 1 Jun 2004 – 31 May 2006
Air Force Organizational Excellence Award
1 Jan 1984 – 31 Dec 1985; 1 Jan 1986 – 31 Dec 1987; 30 Sep 1989 – 30 Sep 1991; 1 Jun 1997 – 31 May 1998
Organized as: 3600th Air Demonstration Team, 25 May 1953
Inactivated on 23 June 1956
Organized as: 3595th Air Demonstration Flight, 19 November 1956
Re-designated: 4520th Air Demonstration Flight, 1 July 1958 Re-designated: 4520th Air Demonstration Squadron, 1 January 1961 Discontinued on 25 February 1967
Constituted as: USAF Air Demonstration Squadron, and activated 13 February 1967 Organized on 25 February 1967 Consolidated on 19 September 1985 with 30th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), first organized on 13 June 1917
Assignments 4520th Air Demonstration Squadron
3600th Fighter Training Wing, 25 May 1953 – 23 June 1956 USAF Advanced Fighter School, 19 November 1956 – 25 February 1967
USAF Air Demonstration Squadron
Tactical Air Command, 13 February 1967 USAF Tactical Fighter Weapons Center, 25 February 1967 57th Fighter Weapons (later, 57th Tactical Training; 57th Fighter Weapons; 57th Fighter; 57th) Wing, 15 February 1974 – Present
Stations 4520th Air Demonstration Squadron
Luke AFB, Arizona, 1 November 1952 – 23 June 1956 Nellis AFB, Nevada, 19 November 1956 – 25 February 1967
USAF Air Demonstration Squadron
Nellis AFB, Nevada, 25 February 1967 – Present.
Aircraft 4520th Air Demonstration Squadron
Republic F-84G Thunderjet, 1953 Republic F-84F Thunderstreak, 1954–1955 North American F-100 Super Sabre, 1956–1963 Republic F-105 Thunderchief, 1964 North American F-100 Super Sabre, 1964–1966
USAF Air Demonstration Squadron
This article incorporates public domain material from the
Air Force Historical Research Agency
^ A five-page report of the mishap was published by Aviation Week & Space Technology in their issue dated 17 May 1982.
^ Sequestration measures cancel Thunderbirds’ appearances past April
1 1 March 2013 USAF Thunderbirds
^  Link to the Thunderbirds website article announcing their 2014
^ a b c d e f "USAF Air Demonstration Squadron". AFHRA. Retrieved 12
^ a b c "Thunderbirds". U.S. Air Force. Retrieved 12 June 2009.
^ ^ "GAO: April 2007: Tactical Aircraft: DOD Needs a Joint and
Integrated Investment Strategy". Gao.gov. Retrieved 30 August 2010.
^ "Thunderbirds at 50" (PDF), Air Force Magazine, Arlington, Virginia,
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