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. In recent use, the slot aircraft (#4) usually employs a F-16D. 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 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:
- Command Staff - two senior sergeants are responsible for the whole squadron. They are charged with the welfare and morale of the squadron.
- Support Staff - more than 70 personnel working in 11 different specialties provide the maintenance support for the aircraft. The support organization is divided into seven areas. After every 300 flying hours, the aircraft are subjected to a five-day inspection.
- Showline Staff - 22 highly-qualified technicians provide first-line support. These are the personnel who take part in the ground show, i. e. they prepare the aircraft for take-off just before they fly in public and support it upon the return from flying. They are selected after the end of every season according to their professional qualifications. Each aircraft has its own support team with an individual crew chief. Crew chiefs and their assistants will fly with the aircraft during the whole season ensuring maximum availability and serviceability at each demonstration site.
- Support Team - consists of supply technicians who provide spare parts and equipment as needed.
- Communication Team - includes communication and video technicians. The video technicians work from a communication van located in a show center and record each single show both for historical and analysis purposes. The communication technicians provide the connection between the operations officer, the pilots and the control tower.
- Administration Team - 8 personnel from the squadron are responsible for information management, personnel administration, finances, documentation and correspondence for the team.
- Management Team - 5 personnel from the crew are responsible for the accommodations and storage for the “Thunderbirds” and for the organization of support aircraft.
- Life-Support Team - are responsible for the pilots' equipment: helmets, oxygen masks, parachutes and ejection seat support.
- Public relations (PR) Team - 8 personnel are responsible for the public appearances of the “Thunderbirds”. They are specialists in the areas of graphic design, photography, journalism and video production. The graphic designers prepare posters, stickers, fliers and other advertising materials. The photographers take pictures, and the journalists are responsible for all contacts with the media and the public. They call upon at least two local media before the beginning of each show.
- Civilians - there are four civilian members: one assistant for the show coordinator, one secretary of the commanding officer, one representative of the aircraft's manufacturer - Lockheed Martin, and one representative of the engine's manufacturer - Pratt and Whitney.
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 show 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.