Keesler & Biloxi Air Show: A brief history of the US Air Force Thunderbirds

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Kimberly L. Mueller
  • 81st Training Wing

Founded on May 25, 1953, the Air Force’s official air demonstration team known as the 3600th Air Demonstration Unit adopted the name, the Thunderbirds. The name, Thunderbirds, was influenced in part by the strong Native American culture and folklore from the southwestern United States where Luke Air Force Base is located.

Seven officers and 22 enlisted comprised the first demonstration team. Maj. Dick Catledge, a training squadron commander at Luke Air Force Base, was selected to lead the team. The team flew and maintained the F-84G Thunderjet.

The F-84G was suitable for aerobatic and demonstration maneuvers despite the plane’s inability to exceed the speed of sound. Lasting a total of 15 minutes, the original demonstration did not originally incorporate a “solo” maneuver.

With the goal of displaying the most updated fighters of the time, the F-84F Thunderstreak replaced the F-84G in 1955. After one season the plane changed in 1956 to the F-100C Super Sabre, making the Thunderbirds the world’s first supersonic aerial demonstration team.

Flying supersonic was never a regular part of the show, but solo would fly at the request of an air show sponsor in 1956. Over time, the Federal Aviation Administration banned supersonic flight at air shows.

In the training season of 1969 the Thunderbirds were using the F-100Ds until the spring. The Thunderbirds now had the first of the new McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom IIs.

The F-4’s conversion was the most extensive in the team’s history. Along with various modifications, the paint scheme changed to include the white paint base remaining in today’s design.

In 1974, a spreading fuel crisis inspired a new aircraft, the T-38A Talon, for the team. Although the Talon did not fulfill the Thunderbirds tradition of flying front-line jet fighters, it did demonstrate the capabilities of a prominent Air Force aircraft.

Showcasing the latest advancement in America’s fighter technology, the first red, white and blue F-16A assigned to the Thunderbirds was delivered on June 22, 1982.  Due to the conversion to the new aircraft, no official shows were flown in 1982. The team flew the F-16 during the 1983 show season; making it the team’s ninth aircraft and once again returning to flying a front-line fighter.

Performing 57 demonstrations in 1997, the Thunderbirds influenced more than 12 million people with the spirit and theme of the Air Force’s 50th anniversary. The year was memorialized with the Thunderbirds Delta pictured on the official Air Force 50th Anniversary U.S. Postal stamp. On Sept. 18, 1997, the United States Postal Service had official unveilings of the stamp in both the Pentagon and the Thunderbird hangar.

In 2007, the Thunderbirds visited Europe for the first time since Sept. 11, 2001, with the European Goodwill Tour. The trip included shows in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Italy, France, United Kingdom, and for the first time in Thunderbirds history, Ireland.

The team took its fifth Far East tour during the 2009 show season. Including visits to Hawaii, Australia, Thailand, Guam, Malaysia, Japan and Korea, the team performed more than 70 shows in 22 states and Puerto Rico in 2009.

The team’s 59th show season included stops in Alaska and Canada, plus dozens more. 

In 2013, the team flew only two demonstrations after leaders throughout the Defense Department were forced to make several tough, but necessary decisions to accommodate sequestration. The jets did not fly for the rest of that season, but despite flying limitations, the team exceled by interacting with more than 10,000 students and continuing to share the Air Force message.

Millions of people have witnessed the Thunderbirds demonstrations, and in turn, they’ve seen the pride, professionalism and dedication of hundreds of thousands of Airmen serving at home and abroad. Each year brings another opportunity for the team to represent those who deserve the most credit: the everyday, hard-working Airmen voluntarily serving America and defending freedom.