The "Thunderbirds" are the United States Air Force Demonstration Squadron. Also known as "America's Ambassadors in Blue", the team flies with six F-16C/D Block 52 aircraft. In total, the "Thunderbirds" use 12 F-16s; nine are C-models (6 used for the displays and the rest in reserve) and three two-seat D-models. The squadron's home base is Nellis AFB, near Las Vegas.
In total, the squadron consists of 120 personnel - 12 officers, 4 civilians and 104 NCOs. The twelve officers all use the "Thunderbird" call-sign with their applicable number. Thunderbird #1 is the leader and commander of the squadron. Pilots #2 to #6 are demonstration pilots: #2 is the left wing, #3 is the right wing, #4 is the slot, # 5 is the lead solo and #6 is the opposite solo. Pilot #7 is the operations officer and #8 is the narrator and coordinator of the show. Each of these pilots is a fighter pilot in the squadron but only the first six participate in the airshow. The #9 is the team's flight surgeon, #10 is the chief of the headquarters, #11 is the chief of support and #12 is the public relations (PR) officer.
The pilot candidates for the Thunderbirds aerobatic team must have at least 1000 flying hours on a jet fighter and must be current on the F-16. All candidates for the "Thunderbirds" must have at least 3 years (but no more than 12 years) of military service. From within all candidates, semifinalists are selected to join the squadron at the end of the season for additional assessment and evaluations during practice flights. Pilot candidates are assessed using the three F-16D aircraft. At the end of this assessment, the best are selected. Three demonstration pilots change every year. The assessment flights include close formation flying and some basic combat maneuvers. The commanding officer of the squadron will select the three new pilots who are then approved by the commander of combat aviation in the USAF. Each new member of the squadron must also pass a 21-day training course which contributes to their better integration into the team. Officers in the "Thunderbirds" serve for 2 years while the rest of the team serve for 3 or 4 years. They train from November to March and by the end of February they are already ready for the show season. Nevertheless, the first demonstration for every season is not held until the end of March. By this time, every pilot will have completed about 100 flights. The team takes the month of December off and then perform for the rest of the season with one further week during the season as a rest period. This means that every day from November to March, each pilot has approximately two to three flights a day.
The ground staff for the "Thunderbirds" include the following:
At any one time, there are normally 10 to 15 women serving on the squadron.
The #8 show coordinator and the rest of the ground staff will normally arrive at where a show will be held a few days earlier to begin the preparation. The aircraft themselves arrive two days before the date of the show. The day before show, they conduct a practice flight to become acquainted with the local terrain. Normally, shows are conducted on Saturday and Sunday.
During the show, pilots will perform about 30 maneuvers. A typical air display lasts about 40 minutes.
In order to perform the show, there must be visibility at least 9200 meters (10 061 yards or 30 183 feet) from the show center. If the lower limit of clouds is between 450 meters (492 yards or 1476 feet) and 1060 meters (1159 yards or 3477 feet) they perform a show with limited number of figures, mostly in a horizontal plane, (i. e., without loops and barrel rolls). This kind of show is known as the "flat" show. If the lower limit is between 1060 meters (1159 yards or 3477 feet) and 2440 meters (2668 yards or 8005 feet), the team performs a "low" show (i.e. with barrel rolls but without loops). If the lower limit is above 2450 meters (2668 yards or 8005 feet) the "Thunderbirds" can perform their "full" show.
If one of the pilots is sick before a show, the rest of pilots will fly the display without him, but if #1 is not capable of flying the show, the entire display must be postponed. The "Thunderbirds" do not have "stand-by" pilots because it would be very challenging for a spare pilot to be ready to fly in every single position of the formation. Unlike the "Blue Angels" during the airshows, the "Thunderbirds" pilots do employ "G"-suits. The team does not normally exceed 88 shows in a single year.
The "Thunderbird" F-16 aircraft are equipped with a special hydrazine-powered back-up power supply which provides stand-by electricity and hydraulics in case of engine failure. In addition, the standard cannon is removed and a smoke tank is put in its place. The smoke is released using a switch on the throttle (the engine power lever). Paraffin-based fuel from the smoke tank is then ejected from a pipe into the jet exhaust where it forms the smoke. Another difference on the team's aircraft is presence of a special chronometer in the cockpit, which gives the pilots the opportunity to measure every maneuver with precision and accuracy.