Thunderbirds History

Thunderbirds F-84G Thunderjet, from 1953 to 1955


The first aerobatic team of the United States Air Forces (USAF) and even in USA was created in 1927 and was called Three Musketeers.

In 1932 was formed a new aerobatic team - Men on the Flying Trapeze. The team was created to the Air Tactics School of the aviation corps in Maxwell Field, Alabama flew four Boeing P-12 aircraft. This team exist until1936 when it was disbanded.

In the next year to the same school was created the other display team Skylarks, but they exist only one year.

Right in 1949 the tradition USAF to have its own aerobatic team continued. This year was formed two aerobatic display teams. One of them carried the name Red Devils and was created in the Las Vegas airbase (later renamed to Nellis). Red Devils flew five P-51 Mustang aircraft and existed only one year.

Another team created in 1948 at the Williams airbase, Arizona, was Acrojets. The team flew four Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star planes and later - on the training version T-33. Acrojets were disbanded in 1953.

In 1949 United States Air Force in Europe (USAFE) created their own aerobatic team named Skyblazers. The team was from 36th fighter wing based Furstenfeldbruk airbase, Germany and flew four Lockheed F-80B Shooting Star aircraft.

In 1950 from the crew of the 38th bomber wing based in France was created another aerobatic team which flew five bombers Martin B-57 Canberra, while one of them was a solo. This team named Black Knights was the first aerobatic display team in the world which flew bombers. After a short existence the Black Knights were disbanded.

In 1950 year was formed Sabre Dancers display team from the 94th fighter squadron. The team flew four North American F-86A Sabre airplanes.

In 1953 the Air National Guard of Maryland created its own aerobatic team which flew four F-51H (P-51) Mustang. The team was named Guardian Angels.

In 1954 was formed Sabre Knights aerobatic team from the 325th fighter squadron based at Nellis AFB. The team flew four F-86D Sabre planes.

In 1954 was formed Minute Men aerobatic display team. First the team flew four red-silver painted F-80 Shooting Star airplanes and later on five F-86 Sabre equipped with white smoke generators. In 1956 this team become an official aerobatic team of the National Guard and existed until 1959.

In 1956 was formed Acrojets aerobatic team from the USAFE based at Furstenfeldbruk airbase, Germany. The team flew four T-33 airplanes.

In 1957 from the 774th Troop Carrier Squadron was formed Four Horsemen aerobatic display team flying four C-130 Hercules airplanes. The team was disbanded in 1960.

Thunderbirds History

The Thunderbirds were officially formed on May 25, 1953, as a 3600 aerobatic squadron at the Luke airbase, Arizona. In the beginning they used four Republic F-84G Thunderjet. The first appearance of the Thunderbirds was on July 1, 1953 at Nellis airbase, Nevada, while the first demonstration was on July 8th and the first publics display was on July 23.

The first commander of the Thunderbirds was Major Dick Catledge, for left and right wings are selected ex-Skyblazers members twins brothers Lieutenant Bill and Lieutenant Buck Pattillo and for the slot Captain Bob Kanaga. Major Dick Catledge was a World War II veteran, who has some medals and the honor diploma from the President of the United States.

During the first six shows the team carried the name Stardusters, but after that the name was changed to Thunderbirds, because of the influence of local Indian culture. North-American Indians has imagined a thunderbird as a sky creature resembling an eagle or a hawk which ruled the sky powers, ordered victory in the times of war, casting thunders and lightings from its eyes.

Until the end of 1953 the Thunderbirds performed 50 air demonstrations. To the team also was assigned one T-33 in Thunderbirds colors, flying by the team's narrator.

In 1954 between January 17th and February 13th the Thunderbirds performed their first tour abroad and visit some countries from Central and South America as well as from the Caribbean. Their show begins with the supersonic flight of F-86 Sabre from USAF. The airshow in Mexico City was watched by 300 000 people on the airport and more 1 200 000 on the hills around the airport.

In 1955 the Thunderbirds moved on swept wing Republic F-84F Thunderstreak airplanes and for the first time used white smoke generator. To the team were added two solo pilots who joined the diamond and form a six-planes formation.

On F-84F the Thunderbirds performed 100 shows, but only in 1955. In that year Thunderbirds received their first transport support aircraft C-119 Flying Boxcar painted in team colors.

In the next year the Thunderbirds moved to their present home base - Nellis airbase, Nevada, and begin to fly on North American F-100C Super Sabre, becoming the first aerobatic team in the world which uses supersonic airplanes (Watch Thunderbirds F-100 Super Sabre video).

First demonstration with F-100C was on May 19, 1956 at Armed Forces Day at Nellis AFB. The highlight of the first shows was the supersonic low pass, but after a few demonstrations the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) banned supersonic passes at air displays. Also C-123D Provider transport plane with serial number 55-4521, was assigned to the Thunderbirds and painted in team's colors.

In the beginning of 1960's for the first time on the body of F-100C was painted the well-known silhouette of a thunderbird.

On Oct 9, 1958 happened the worst accident in the history of the team. The team's escorting cargo plane C-123D crashed killing all 19 peoples from the Thunderbirds support staff. The cause of the crash maybe was a birds strike as one eyewitness said, but the officials not confirmed this. The aircraft was assigned to 347th Troop Carrier Sq., 464th Troop Carrier Wg, 9th AF, TAC crashed and burned 6.5 miles from Payette, Idaho. Crew: (347th TC Sq, TAC, 9th AF,464th TC Wg, Pope AFB): Cpt. James C. Wilson, Jr; 1LT John N. Frisby; 1LT Thomas C. Lampsa; SSG James M. Hauver; A1C James C. Miller. Passengers: (4520th Combat Crew Tng Wg Nellis AFB - Members of Thunderbird Squadron Support Crew): CWO Floyd L. Pulley; MSG Boyd O. Lambeth; SSG John H. Bishop; SSG George H. Blanchard; SSG Charles H. Hillhouse; SSG Robert L. Meyers; SSG George J. Stevens; A1C Elmer G Houseman; A1C Richard T. Lashley; A1C Don L. Seaney; A2C Jerry R. Adams; A2C Adrain C. Gayther CIVILIANS: Mr. Stanley A. Shegda, North American Aviation Tec Rep Mr. Joseph Paul, North American Aviation Mechanic.

In November and December 1959 the Thunderbirds started their 31-days-long tour at the Far East where they performed 29 shows in Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Philippines and Hawaii.

In 1963 the Thunderbirds performed their first airshow in Europe and North Africa including: Portugal, West Germany, France, Libya, Great Britain, Luxembourg, Italy and Spain. On this plane were performed 640 shows.

In the next year the Thunderbirds moved Republic F-105B Thunderchief, but fly on it only in six shows between April 29 and May 9. For the first time and only with this plane the team used smoke with two colors - red and blue.

On May 9, 1964, when the team arrived at the Hamilton airbase, California, a short time before landing, Thunderbird #2 Capt. Gene Devlin crashed. An eye witness on the ground at the field said that Thunderbird Two was on the left side of the three-plane formation, which had just executed a low pass over the runway. Then, as the three rose into a vertical climb, when Devlin's aircraft was at about a 45-degree attitude to the ground, and traveling about 300 knots, the fuselage snapped in half, just above the weapons bay, and blew up. (More about this crash here).

After that accident the team transited to F-100D.

The year 1965 was the most burdened at the history of the team. On this year the Thunderbirds performed three tours in Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean - total 121 shows in 23 countries. Today the team performs about 60 shows yearly.

During their tour in Europe they flew from Paris to Colorado Springs the total amount of 11 260 kilometers (6996 miles) without landing with seven on-flight refueling. With F-100D Super Sabre they performed 471 air demonstrations.

In 1967 the Thunderbirds performed their show number 1000 and in the next year they received the status of an official aerobatic squadron of US Air Force.

On Oct 21, 1967 during Laughlin AFB, Texas airshow, #5 Capt. McPeak, suffered in a crash, but he succeed to eject after his plane broke. The crash happened when McPeak pull up his F-100D to begin series of vertical rolls. Then in about 6,5 G the wing collapsed and engine start to fire. Soon after that Capt. McPeak ejected and land near to the crowd. This crash limited flying on all USAF Super Sabres to 4G.

On January 9, 1969, Captain Jack Thurman killed during solo training with F-100C aircraft. The two solo aircraft collided in mid-air as the Thurman F-100 crashed, but the other pilot landed his F-100 safely. After that crash, the other involved pilot was removed from the team. Following the crash, the Thunderbirds used just one solo aircraft during airshows until they transited to T-38 Talon. That’s why the Thunderbirds flew F-4E Phantom just in five-ship formation at airshows.

On July 4, 1969, in the presence of President Nixon in Colorado Springs the Thunderbirds introduced their new aircraft - McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom II. This demonstration was broadcast live on the national television for raising the spirit of the American people (bearing in mind the unsuccessful performance during the Vietnamese War). That was the reason for not interrupting the aerobatic demonstrations during the war. For the first time the basic color of the aircraft were now painted in white. Before that the basic color of the planes was the color of the unpainted metal - aluminum.

The planes itself were radically transformed. Because F-4 was a two-seat plane, on the back seat was placed the operator of armaments, radio and navigation equipment. But for needs of the Thunderbirds radio and navigation equipment was moved on the front cabin, the control lever in the back cabin was removed, the vertical stabilizer of slot #4 was covered with steel and looks like painted in black (actually it is fumigated by #1 exhaust gases). The last thing was necessitated by the fact that #4 flew strictly behind #1 (the leader) and its vertical stabilizer in certain moments runs into the jet from the leader's engine. In the same 1969 the Thunderbirds performed their show in smallest public - only 30 people in Alaska. With Phantoms the Thunderbirds performed 518 aerial demonstrations.

On June 4, 1972, #3 left wing Major Joe Howard killed during the Transpo airshow at Dulles International Airport. At the beginning of the demonstration, Major Joe Howard received malfunction during engine start. He left his aircraft and jump into a spare one. During the demonstration, the team performed a five-ship roll when the Howard F-4E suddenly pulled up from the formation. The aircraft stall and start falling. Major Howard eject just before the aircraft impact, but the flames of the crashed aircraft burned his parachute and he died. Howard aircraft received a malfunction in hydraulic arm that controlled the horizontal stabilizers, which stuck in up position.

Он Dec, 21, 1972, Capt. Jerry Bolt, slot pilot and Tech Sgt. Chuck Lynn were killed during a flight test at Nellis Air Base.

The petrol crisis in 1973 urged the squadron to abandon F-4E and to look for a cheaper for an exploitation aircraft. Its last show with F-4E Phantom was on Nov 10, 1973.

Although the Thunderbirds were formed to demonstrate the abilities of combat pilots and aircraft, they were urged to move on the training Northrop T-38 Talon, because five Talons used as much fuel as only one F-4. Northrop T-38 Talon does not have a system for air refueling and for that reason the Thunderbirds does not organize shows over the ocean. The T-38's engines were so clean work, so the #4 tail always stay clean.

1974 was the short season - only 4 months with 35 shows.

In 1976 the squadron performed its air display number 2000. Also in 1976 the team planes numbers changed with 200th year's logo of the United States creation.

On May 9, 1981 in order to avoid the crash into 90,000 people of the public, Capt. David L. "Nick" Hauck was killed when his T-38 apparently flamed out and crashed in a Layton field at Hill Air Force Base, Ogden, Utah.

In Sept 1981 the Thunderbirds leader D.L. Smith died in an accident at Cleveland, OH, following a three-day Labor Day airshow. His engines sucked seagulls on takeoff.

On January 18, 1982, during a training flight four of Thunderbirds's aircraft crash in Indian Springs, Nevada. The diamond tries to perform loop in a line abreast, when the leader's plane received mechanical break-down, which does not allow it to exit from loop. During the flights in such a closer formation (typical for most flying teams) all the pilots follows visually the leader and if they are on a one-plane distance from him they follow the plane between the leader and them and do not look out or to the panel. All the rest three completely trouble-free aircraft follows the leader until he crashed to the ground, causing the deaths of all four Thunderbird's pilots. These fallen Thunderbirds were Major Norm Lowry, 37, Commander and Leader, Captain Willie Mays, 32, Left Wing, Captain Joseph 'Pete' Peterson, 32, Right Wing, and Captain Mark E. Melancon, 31, Slot.

The "Diamond Crash" interrupts the demonstrations of the Thunderbirds for 14 months until April 2, 1983, when they flew again - to perform an aerobatic demonstration, but now with new aircraft - General Dynamics F-16A Fighting Falcon. First F-16 in Thunderbirds colors was painted on June 22, 1982 at Nellis airbase. On that plane the squadron resumed its flights on fighters.

During the Gulf War in 1990 the squadron does not performed any demonstrations.

On Feb 14, 1994, Thunderbird #5 Maj. John Switzer crashed while performing "spiral descent" maneuver at Indiana Springs Auxiliary Airfield, Nevada during winter training. The pilot survived with major injures and was recalled from the team.(Watch accident video).

On Apr 25, 1999, during the airshow in Patrick airbase, Florida, two of the planes hit one another while taking off. The show was canceled immediately. During the take-off of the diamond #3 and #4 collided while realigning. The diamond takes off in this order: first of course is #1, next to it in the left and back is #2, in the right and back is #3 and in the right and back from #3 is #4. At the take-off by the leader's command #4 moves between #2 and #3, a little behind them. Exactly during this maneuver #4 hits #3's left horizontal stabilizer with its right wing. Both planes received insignificant damages, but in the name of security the show was cut off. The cause for the accident was not announced, but I will leave the comments to the readers bearing in mind the fact that soon after this #3 was replaced by ex-solo pilot, who flew at the squadron in 1997-1998. This accident interrupted the team's program for about a month spent in training.

On Sept 14, 2003 Thunderbird #6 Capt Chris R. Stricklin crashed in Idaho airshow. He successfully ejected shortly before plane crash to the ground. The crash happens during take off maneuver. Stricklin forget to reset his altimeter, and goes too low to exit safely from the maneuver.

In the 2006 season for the first time in Thunderbirds history, a woman demonstration pilot was chosen. This was Major Nicole Malachowski, who flew as right wing #3 position.

On the next year a second woman demo pilot, Major Samantha Weeks was selected to flew as opposing solo #6 position. In this year, in this unique team structure, Thunderbirds made its long waiting European tour.

On that tour on July 1, 2007 in Graf Ignatievo Air Base, Bulgaria, happens a birdstrike accident. #2 hit the bird with its canopy, then he land and after 15 min for checking for damages he take off again to join the diamond. Same case happens in Apr 23 same year in Barksdale Air Force Base airshow, but then #2 landed and only five Thunderbirds finishing the show. Bad luck for #2 this year.

From the 2009 season the Thunderbirds begin to use more powerful F-16 Block 52, which gives the pilots opportunity to perform for the first time ever in history, a diamond loop immediately after take-off. No other aerobatic team performed such a maneuver ever.

On Aplil 1st, 2013, Thunderbirds show season was cancelled from due to budgetary sequestrations.  US NAVY Blue Angels cancelled their displays also.

On 2 June 2016 the opposing solo #6 aircraft of the team, crashed at Widefield approximately five miles south of Peterson Air Force Base. The incident occurred about 1 p.m. after a flyover at the Air Force Academy graduation ceremony. The pilot Maj. Alex Turner ejected safely and is walking around unhurt. The cause of the crash was a throttle trigger malfunction and inadvertent throttle rotation led to the engine cut-off. Two hours later the #6 aircraft from the other US military aerobatic team crashed, but this time killing the pilot Captain Jeff Kuss.

On Jun 24, 2017, The Thunderbirds #8 F-16D jet skidded off the runway during landing and flipped on its top, trapping two people inside the cockpit. Pilot Capt. Erik Gonsalves and Staff Sgt. Kenneth Cordova were the occupants and were taken to Miami Valley Hospital in good condition. The crash occurs by the "excess airspeed and insufficient stopping distance on a wet runway” caused the aircraft to depart the runway and overturn in the grass.

On April 4, 2018, the slot pilot Maj. Stephen Del Bagno died in crash at Nevada Test and Training Range near Nellis AFB during routine practice flight. This was the first fatal crash since the "Dimond crash" in 1982.

Thunderbirds F-84F Thunderstreak, 1955 only Thunderbirds F-100C Super Sabre, from 1956 to 1963 Thunderbirds C-123D Provider cargo plane Thunderbirds F-105B Thunderchief, 1964 six airshows only Thunderbirds F-100D Super Sabre, from 1964 to 1968 Thunderbirds F-4E Phantom, from 1969 to 1973 Thunderbirds T-38 Talon, from 1974 to 1982 Thunderbirds F-16 from 1983

Aerobatic Teams