The infamous United States Air Force (USAF) Thunderbirds have been performing incredible aerial formations since May of 1953. Their initial aerobatic performance flight was in June of that same year. By August of 1953, the team had already performed in 26 shows; and the following year, the team did their first overseas air show, adding a solo demonstration at that time.
ABOUT THE F-16 THUNDERBIRD AIRCRAFT
The initial aircraft used by the Thunderbirds was the F-84G Thunderjet – a straight wing – and by the spring of 1955, the team switched over to another straight wing aircraft, the F-84F Thunderstreak. Several other changes in aircraft would continue throughout the team’s history until 1983, when they transitioned to the F-16, the aircraft which they continue to use for their present day performances.
The F-16 used by the USAF is specially marked – red, white and blue – and is very similar (with only a few insignificant differences) to the F-16 operational aircraft. The Thunderbirds spent 1982 training on the F-16 so there were no aerial performances that year. Several variations of the F-16 aircraft have been used – the most recent being the F-16C/D, which the Thunderbirds first used in their 2009 season.
THE DEMONSTRATION TEAM
The Demonstration team is made of the diamond performers and the soloists. The diamond’s air performance consists of extremely tight maneuvers in close proximity to each other. The soloists generally will perform their maneuvers travelling just below the speed of sound. Until the FAA banned supersonic flying over the U.S., the pilots would deliberately cause a sonic boom during the performance.
Officers who fly with the squadron do so for two years, but enlisted personnel are required to serve three to four years. The experienced pilots on this esteemed squadron are also combat trained and can quickly convert into an operation group if necessary.
In their 59 year history, with well over 4,000 acrobatic performances, the Thunderbirds have suffered relatively few losses. Flying these high performance jets is dangerous enough in and of itself, and is greatly compounded when they are flown in such tight formations and maneuvers.