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  The United States Air Force Thunderbirds, Turn 50   

A Golden Jubilee

Part One 

by Gary Palamara 

Six highly polished, red, white and blue jet fighters sit at runway’s end, their engines at idle.  Within moments, these F-16 aircraft will take-off and fly as one, finely tuned machine.  When they start down the tarmac, the birds will develop more horsepower than the entire starting lineup of the Indianapolis 500.  This lift-off will be number 3792, and it comes at the end of countless hours of practice, and training.  But it’s not the end of the road.  Rather, it marks the beginning of another show, and the start of another season.  The fiftieth season, since the groups’ inception. 

Now, following in the footsteps of the many who have come before him, the leader of the team, calls out cadence like an NFL quarterback about to start the big game…

“Thunderbirds Check…. Two, Three, Four, Five, Six”

“Lets Runner Up…”

“Afterburner On - Ready…. Now”

“Smoke On - Ready…. Now”

“Smoke Off - Ready… Now”

“Release Brake - Ready…. Now”

“Nose-Wheel - Ready…. Now”

“Gear Ready…. Now”


With the roar of afterburners splitting the air, the Fighting Falcons head skyward.  A faint smell of jet exhaust filters over the cheering crowd, as the Air Force song is played from the quarter-mile long sound system.  For the next forty-three minutes, the audience will remain spellbound while the aircraft circle and dive with split second accuracy.  The F-16s of course, are machines, but the men at the controls are not.  They are six, highly trained and highly skilled fighter pilots.  As individuals, these men are not super human, and they are not unique.  But they are however, some of the best fighter pilots the U S Air Force has to offer. 

In this battle for the hearts and minds of their willing audience, the flyers seize every advantage.  They fly the best planes, maintained by some of the best technicians in the world.  The pilots and the support people form one unified team, and as a group, they have only one goal. Their mission: to spread good will and patriotism throughout America and around the World.  All together, these 130 men and women make up, the United States Air Force Thunderbirds.   In 2003, they are fifty years young.

In the Beginning 

When President Harry S. Truman, signed the National Security Act into law, on July 26, 1947, it was the largest restructure of the military since the Civil War.  The law provided for a comprehensive approach to the security of the United States, by creating three co-equal branches of military, Army, Navy and a new Department of the Air Force.  In addition, the law created the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the National Security Administration (NSA). 

As a result of the National Security Act, the United States Air Force was officially born on September 18, 1947.  General Carl A. Spaatz assumed the role of Air Force Chief of Staff, under the direction of the first Secretary of the Air Force, W. Stuart Symington.  The 1947 law had allowed only two years for the transition from the old Army Air Corps, to the Air Force structure we know today. The logistics involved with setting up this new branch of service would require a massive effort.   Everything from the style and color of the new Air Force uniforms, to the design of the Official Air Force Seal would need to be created.  For anyone who was involved with making these changes, it must have been an exciting time.  By early 1950, nearly all was in place and America had a brand new Air Force of which to be proud.


 1997 Commemorative Air Force Stamp - copyright USPS 

Along with the creation of the Air Force, came the almost immediate need for self-promotion. Then as now, constant civilian and political support was needed to help fund many of the new planes and systems required by a modern air corps.  Naturally, the Air Force top brass were eager to show off their talents and machinery, both at home and in those early cold war years, around the world as well.  Added to all of this, was the ever-present issue of retention and recruitment of qualified personnel. Now, more than a half-century later, all of the reasons for Air Force self-promotion remain largely unchanged.

When Air Force officials in the early 1950s, considered some of the ways they could present skill and precision flying to the world, the obvious answer was to form a flight demonstration squadron. Aerial demonstrations have been around since the inception of the airplane.  Soon after the Wright brother’s triumph at Kitty Hawk, groups of people would gather to watch the brothers demonstrate their new flying machine.  By 1909, the military was beginning to recognize the tactical advantage of the new invention and the airplane quickly became an effective tool in combat.  During World War I, the use of air power in the European theater was already upon us. 

After the war, the 1920s and ‘30s saw barnstorming pilots crisscrossing America performing for nearly any size audience.  Many, early aviators like Charles Lindbergh got their start by flying from town to town, charging five dollars per ride or performing in what was known at the time as a “Flying Circus.”  During the Second World War, air power once again came to the forefront, and was the deciding factor in many battles. 

Army Air crews and Navy pilots began organizing to show off their talents after World War II.  Some of these groups were officially sanctioned and some were organized on an informal basis.  Groups like the Sky-Blazers, Acrojets, Saber-Dancers and the most famous group, The Navy Blue Angels, were all formed in the post war years.

  From L – R Capt.Bob Kanaga, Capt.Buck Patillo, 

  Maj.Dick Catledge, Capt.Bob McCormick, Capt.Bill Patillo

  Photo Courtesy Dick Catledge   

Creating the Team  

In May of 1953, with Air Force pride on the line, the decision was made to officially create the United States Air Force, 3600th Air Demonstration Team.  Like the Navy Blue Angels, the establishment of an official Air Force team, would also consolidate all of the duplicated effort by the many individual groups into one organization.  Training of pilots would become more uniform and standards of performance and safety would be established.

Although they had already been practicing for several weeks, the 3600th squadron officially became operational on 1 June 1953 at Luke Field, Arizona.  Luke was the home to the Air Force Advanced Flight Training School and the selection of the first demonstration team was made up entirely of Luke pilots.  In all, five men were selected for the team.  Major Dick Catledge was chosen as the first team leader and would command the squadron through 1953 and ’54. As the Left and Right Wingmen, Major Catledge chose twin brothers, Captains Bill and Buck Patillo.  The Patillo brothers were excellent pilots and had performed with the European group the Sky-Blazers, but as identical twin brothers, Major Catledge had a hard time telling them apart for the first month or two of practice. To round out the Thunderbird Diamond, Captain Bob Kanaga was chosen as the team’s first slot pilot. Captain Bob McCormick would act as a back-up pilot and would warm-up the crowd with maneuvers of his own, just prior to the full diamond show. 

With the flashy new team in place, the 3600th group also decided to pick a name that fit the image they were trying to project. Once chosen however, the first name of the young Air Force team would be short lived. 

The Luke Air Base newspaper ran a contest, to help decide on a name for the new team.  The contest lasted 30 days and at the end, the winner would get a weekend at a Las Vegas hotel, along with a $50.00 government Bond.  About twenty-five percent of the entrants included “Thunderbird” as part of the team name.  But the selection committee assigned to pick the winning entry disregarded the name “Thunderbirds” as being too regional.  According to retired Mgr. General Dick Catledge, in the early 1950s, everything in the Phoenix area, around Luke field, had the name Thunderbird in the title.  So the selection team chose as their winning entry the name, “Star Dusters”.   But the United States Air Force Star Dusters would fly for less than thirty days.

After several weeks of flying as the “Star Dusters”, word of the new team name reached Training Command Headquarters at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois.  Soon after, Major Catledge received a telegram from his boss about the team’s name.  Three-star General Bob Harper didn’t exactly care for the name Star Dusters.  Harper thought the new team name should capitalize on some of the regional folklore of the southwestern United States.  General Harper thought the name “Thunderbirds” had a nice ring to it and he also thought the name would be a natural for teams mission and geographic home base location.  Needless to say, after that telegram arrived from General Harper, the name “Star Dusters” faded into Air Force trivia. 

 The World Famous Thunderbird patch 

In retrospect, Lt. General Harper was right.  The name “Thunderbirds” was a wise choice and symbolized the team’s mission.  From the southwestern United States through western Canada and as far north as Alaska, there has long been a Native American legend that still lives on today.  Folklore tells of a bird like creature that creates thunder with his large flapping wings and shoots lightning from his eyes.  Some native groups endow this bird with the power to grant success in battle, while many native artists, often depict him using Red, white and blue coloring.  The Indian people throughout the region called the creature “Thunderbird”. No other name more aptly depicts the mission and spirit of the Air Force team.

        Soon after the final choice of name was made, Captain Bob McCormick sketched the now famous Thunderbird logo.  This patch with only slight changes, has been worn by every member of the squadron for the past fifty years.  To distinguish themselves further, the Thunderbirds took regular Air Force issue flight suits, dyed them black, and painted their flight helmets with a red, white and blue motif.  Perhaps coincidentally, in addition to the selection of the Thunderbirds as the official team name, the first fighter airplanes assigned to the group by the Air Force were nicknamed the “Thunder Jet”.  The Air Force’s frontline fighter of the day, the Republic F-84G, would serve the team for the first two seasons.

  The F -84G Thunder Jet 

First Flight 

The inaugural year for the new Air Force team produced many memorable moments.  The first civilian air show took place less then 90 days after inception of the team when they appeared in July 1953, at the “Frontier Days” celebration in Cheyenne, Wyoming.  Cheyenne would become an annual stop on the team’s calendar for nearly every one of the next fifty seasons. 

In September of ‘53, the team traveled to the hometown of Orville and Wilbur Wright, showing their stuff before a crowd of more than 400,000, at the annual Dayton, Ohio air show.  Just six months after their inception, one of the last events of the year took place when the Thunderbirds paid their respects to the birthplace of aviation, Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.  Flying in the hallowed skies above the Wright brother’s memorial, the Kitty Hawk demonstration commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of air-flight on December 17, 1953.  All in all, the first season was a resounding success with the Thunderbirds showing off their red, white and blue F-84s all across America.

In 1954, the Thunderbirds once again took their talents to the skies.  From an airport dedication in San Francisco, to the Armed Forces Day celebration in Washington, DC, the Thunderbirds traveled throughout America during their second season.  In 1954 the team also embarked on the first of many foreign tours, as the Thunderbirds made an historic 11-nation swing through South America and the Caribbean.  From Santiago, Chile and Montevideo, Uruguay to Havana, Cuba, large enthusiastic crowds greeted the young Air Force team at each air show.   At the Mexico City Airport the official crowd numbered over 300,000, while an estimated 1.2 million more spectators watched from the surrounding hillsides. The simple idea of showing off U.S. Air Force skill and promoting good will was already beginning to pay off, as the Thunderbird reputation continued to build with each show.

  The F -100 D aircraft, in an inverted six ship Delta formation. 

The Thunderbirds flew the newer Republic F-84F “Thunder Streak” for the 1955 season only.  But although it only flew for one year, the Thunder Streak has the distinction of being the first Thunderbird aircraft to use a smoke oil system.  Then in 1956, the Thunderbirds transitioned to the North American F-100C Super Saber.  Although FAA regulations would eventually ban supersonic flight at all US air shows, the acquisition of the F-100 gave the Thunderbirds the ability to fly supersonic for the first time.  The F-100 also required more support than was available at the Luke Air base in Arizona, so with the 1956 season, the Thunderbirds moved to Nellis Air Force Base, eight miles north and east of Las Vegas, Nevada. 


A New Home 

Nellis Air Force Base opened its doors in 1941 as a training base for the B-17 bomber.  After World War II, Nellis was converted into a fighter training facility.  Today it is the home of the Air Force Air Warfare Center, otherwise known as “Red Flag”.  They call Nellis, the “Home of the Fighter Pilot”, and it would remain the home base of the Air Force Thunderbirds, for the next five decades.

An overseas tour to the Far East during the 1959 season saw the team leave behind their F-100C aircraft due to its lack of in-flight refueling capabilities.  Traveling via a C-97 support plane, the team picked up the newer model F-100D aircraft upon arrival in Okinawa.  The replacement planes had been pre-painted to match their stateside counterparts, and would be used by the team on their first Asian tour. 

  The Thunderbird F -105 B six ship formation  

In 1964 the team started the season, by taking delivery of the new Republic F-105B Thunder Chief.   Although an impressive airplane, by any standard, the “Thud” weighed in nearly 4 tons heavier than the F-100.  In addition, the F-105 had to be heavily modified to perform the air show role.  Only six air shows into the season however, the team abandoned the 105, in part as a result of an accident, in which a Thunderbird pilot was killed after his plane broke apart while in flight.  The team later moved back to the North American F-100 for the remainder of 1964.  The “D” model F-100, would remain the Thunderbird’s fighter of choice for the next five years. 


"Muscle Car"

Throughout the 1950s, and ‘60s aviation technology was rapidly changing, and always wanting to showcase frontline aircraft to the public, in 1969 the team took delivery of the popular McDonald-Douglas F-4E.

The F-4 Phantom was to fighter aircraft, what the “muscle cars” of the 1950s and ‘60s were to drag racing.  At sixty-two feet long and with an airframe weight of 30,425 pounds, the Phantom was two thirds longer and nearly three times heavier than the Thunderbirds original F-84 aircraft.  Although heavier, the F-4 had the power to match its large size.  Twin General Electric - J79 engines, each delivered an impressive 17,900 lbs of thrust.  With a top end speed of 1400 mph, the F-4 with full afterburner was also probably one of the loudest aircraft in air show history. 

 The F -4 E Phantom - copyright Boeing Corporation 

As a further example of F-4 prowess, in a full combat mode the F-4 Phantom was capable of carrying nearly three times the armament payload of a WW II era B-17 bomber. Needless to say, the appearance of an F-4 Phantom at any air show, definitely made it, a plane to remember.  Originally designed for carrier landings, the McDonald-Douglas F-4 also holds the distinction of being the only aircraft flown by both the United States Air Force Thunderbirds and the Navy Blue Angels.   

The Phantom required another change that would forever alter the Thunderbirds motif. From their inception, the Thunderbirds always flew “stock” Air Force fighters with a natural metal finish.  To this base, the distinctive red, white and blue Thunderbird markings would be added.  The F-4E presented the team with a new problem and also a new opportunity. 

The McDonald-Douglas F-4 had an outer surface comprised of different metal types and rather large fiberglass nose radome.  Keeping the traditional polished Aluminum base color for the Thunderbird jets was impossible.  After several trial designs, the Thunderbirds came up with a new paint scheme in keeping with their streamlined image.  An all white painted chassis with distinctive red and blue markings adorned the Thunderbirds aircraft for the first time in 1969.  To those topside markings, a large dark blue Thunderbird symbol was added on the belly of the airplane.  The new Thunderbird paint scheme was impressive from any angle and variations of this design would remain throughout the rest of the team’s history.  

 With Diamond Head in the background, the Thunderbird F -4s 

  perform a line abreast maneuver over Waikiki beach, Hawaii 


The F-4s large physical size and power did not come without a price, however.  After 518 shows, the energy crisis of the early 1970s, ended the era of the Thunderbirds fuel hungry F-4 Phantom.  In 1974 the team began flying the smaller Northrop T-38A, Talon.  Similarly, the Navy Blue Angels traded in their fleet of Phantoms for a smaller plane, the Douglas A-4 “Sky hawk”. 

The history of the Thunderbirds use of the T-38 Talon, will always be viewed with mixed emotions.  In many ways it was a transitional aircraft, bridging from the older, heavier airframes of the post war era, to the more modern age of fly by wire technology. 

As with any aircraft, the T-38 Talon had both positives and negatives to offer.  As a training plane, the T-38 departed from the normal practice of equipping the Thunderbirds team with only frontline combat capable aircraft. The T-38 also did not have an in-flight refueling capability, which put world tours out of reach, without much advanced planning.  Even on coast-to-coast sorties with the T-38, the team would require several stops along the way to refuel.  Also, when compared to the earthshaking roar of an F-4 take-off, the air shows performed with the T-38 were relatively quiet by comparison.  But although the T-38’s smaller size and visual profile did make it harder for crowds to follow at air shows, the T-38 did give the team several advantages.

Since it was a jet trainer, the T-38 was the one jet aircraft that nearly every Air Force pilot had first flown.  Weighing in at less than 8,000 lbs, the T-38 was less than one quarter the weight of it’s F-4 predecessor.  As a result, its estimated that the total fuel usage of five T-38 Talons, equaled just one F-4 Phantom.  As a much smaller, single engine aircraft, the T-38 Talon was also more maintenance friendly, and required less support personnel. 


  The Thunderbird T -38A Talons, crisscrossing America  

Although from an air show perspective, small size is not always an advantage, the T-38 was capable of more quickly returning to show center, which made for a faster paced air show and put more of the action in front of the crowd.  Despite several negatives, the Thunderbirds team proudly flew nearly 600 shows with the Northrop T-38 from 1974, until early 1982 when tragedy struck the team.




Tragedy Strikes 

            January 18, 1982 dawned like any other day in Thunderbird history.  By days end, it would become the darkest moment of the team’s twenty-nine years.  During a regularly scheduled practice session at Range 65, thirty-five miles northwest of Nellis, AFB, four Thunderbird pilots were killed while performing a line abreast loop maneuver.  The post crash investigation would point to a failure in the Lead pilots plane, which prevented him from pulling out of the loop.  Unaware of a problem with Thunderbird One, Thunderbirds Two, Three and Four followed the malfunctioning aircraft into the ground.  Killed in the crash were Lead pilot Maj. Norm Lowry, Captains Willie Mays and Pete Peterson, Left and Right Wing and Slot pilot Capt. Mark Melancon.  The ’82 crash, ended the Thunderbirds’ use of the T-38 Talon. 

Over the long history of the Thunderbirds there had been several accidents before but none was quite so devastating as the one in ’82.  The crash of the Air Force’s premiere flying team reverberated through the entire Air Force family.  With very little time prior to the first air show, the 1982 season was cancelled and for a brief time, there was even talk of disbanding the team entirely.  Once the decision was made to continue however, the work to rebuild the team progressed at a feverish pace.  With the 1982 season cancelled, the Thunderbirds would not fly another public demonstration until the spring of 1983, more than eighteen months after their last public air show.                


Even before the horrific events of January ’82, there had been talk of transitioning the Thunderbirds team back to a new frontline fighter.  In the spring, Air Force officials worked hard to re-organize the team and rebuild its shattered morale.  Upon their return, the team would once again embody the original mission, of presenting combat ready airplanes, flown by some of the best pilots in the world.  

Towards the end of the Vietnam War, the Air Force began to assess the likely threats posed by potential enemies around the world.  It was determined that a significant area of vulnerability might come from defending against large numbers of smaller, cheaper, enemy fighters.  Partially because of that thinking, the Air Force wanted to have in its arsenal, large numbers of lightweight, relatively inexpensive aircraft that would perform multiple roles.  The Air Force brass would soon get more than they bargained for with the F-16A Fighting Falcon. 

  The Prototype YF -16 copyright General Dynamics Corp.  

In 1972, General Dynamics Corporation, now part of the Lockheed Corporation, won the contract against four other manufacturers to build a prototype YF-16, single engine jet fighter for the US military.  Once built, the aircraft would outperform all expectations.  With an initial cost projection of just 5 million dollars per copy, on January 13, 1975, the US Air Force signed an agreement to buy 650 of the new General Dynamics F-16A model aircraft.  By the end of the century, the F-16 Fighting Falcon would become one of the World’s most widely produced fighter aircraft, with the US Air Force alone, owning nearly 1500.


As the newest and most capable jet fighter in the 1982 Air Force inventory, the Fighting Falcon was the logical choice for rebuilding the Thunderbird team.  It was also the frontline fighter aircraft the team had been missing for the past eight years.  The first F-16 painted in Thunderbird colors, arrived at Nellis Air Force Base on June 22, 1982, just five months after the fatal crash. First flown by the Air Force in January of ‘79, the F-16 retained all the features of greatest Thunderbird aircraft, while bringing to the table some impressive abilities of its own. 

  Thunderbird Six  @  McGuire AFB  - 1991 

If the F-4 Phantom was considered a “muscle car,” the General Dynamics F-16 can only be compared to a “Formula One” racer.  Sleek, and agile, the F-16A was the Thunderbird’s first “fly by wire” aircraft.  The single Pratt and Whitney F100 engine developed a whopping 24,000 pounds of thrust (now 27,000 lbs), easily pushing the 26,000 lbs air frame to Mach 2 + at altitude (1500 mph).  Designed to overcome many of the shortcomings of Viet Nam era warplanes the F-16 is a pilot’s dream to fly.  From its side mounted “joystick” and throttle controls, to its “Heads-Up Display” and maximum visibility, 360-degree bubble canopy, the Falcon is an aircraft you “strap-on” rather than fly. 

Its G-force friendly, 30 degree canted seat provides maximum comfort, while helping F-16 pilots handle the aircrafts wide –3 to +9 G force limits.  During testing of the F-16, the aircraft handled Hi G forces so well, that test pilots struggled hard to keep up with the plane’s performance.  The combination of tight cornering and a climb rate of 30,000 feet per minute makes handling Hi “Gs” a must.  The best part of all for the Thunderbird organization was, the F-16 both looks and sounds like a real frontline fighter aircraft… because it is! 

Currently, the team has assigned to it, nine F-16 C and three F-16 D aircraft.  Except for the red, white and blue paint scheme, the F-16s that the Thunderbirds fly are for the most part “stock” Air Force fighters, with little modifications.  The side mounted 20 mm cannon and ammunition drum has been removed to accommodate the 50 gallon smoke oil tank used for the shows.  The smoke oil plumbing runs inside the skin of the aircraft and exits at the rear of the plane.  This biodegradable, paraffin-based oil is injected directly into the jet engine exhaust stream whenever the rewired “Dog-fight” switch is activated.  The heat generated by the exhaust vaporizes the oil into puffy white smoke, which helps audiences to visualize the Thunderbird maneuvers.    

All in all, the F-16 Fighting Falcon was in 1982, and still remains, one of the best fighter aircraft ever built.  If you start with an awesome design, then make constant improvements in performance, reliability and safety, its no wonder then that the Thunderbirds have continued to fly the F-16 aircraft for the past twenty years.  Not counting practice air shows, the 2003 season opener is the 1339th F-16 air show flown by the Air Force Thunderbirds.

In part two of this article we will look at the make up of the current 2003 team and what it takes to make a Thunderbird Air Show.  

Special thanks to the following… Retired Major General Richard C. Catledge for his help and photographs, Lt. Col. Richard G. McSpadden, Jr., SSgt. Brian Bahret, SSgt. Christopher Gish, SSgt. Katherine Garcia and the entire 2002 Thunderbird Team for their help and guidance.


All Photographs are U.S. Air Force Copyright except where noted.

Text originally printed in “The Friends Journal” the official quarterly publication of the United States Air Force Museum Vol. 25, No. 4   Winter 2002 / 2003 -  Pages 51 - 57


   Links to more Thunderbird Features       

Thunderbirds Air Force Museum  Article part #1 Thunderbirds Air Force Museum  Article part #2  -  

Thunderbirds Radio World  Article  -  Thunderbirds Popular Communications Article   -  

Thunderbirds Gallery Page     

The 2007  Thunderbirds Air Show Schedule     The  McGuire Air Force Base 2007 Air Show


The  Atlantic City  2007  Air  Show


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