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Thunderbirds (squadron)

The Thunderbirds are the Air Demonstration Squadron of the United States Air Force, successors to the "Skyblazers."

United States Air Force Thunderbirds, flying the F-16.
The Squadron was activated, after 6 months training in an unofficial status, on June 1, 1953 as the 3600th Air Demonstration Team at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. They flew their debut exhibition at Luke a week later, and began public exhibitions at the 1953 Frontier Days in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The team had flown 26 shows by that August. The first team leader was Maj. Dick Catledge, and the first plane flown by the squadron was the F-84 Thunderjet.

The next year the Thunderbirds performed their first overseas air shows, in a tour of South America. A year later, 1955, they moved to the F-84F Thunderstreak aircraft, in which they performed 91 air shows.

The aircraft of the squadron was again changed in June, 1956, this time to the F-100 Super Sabre, which gave the pilots supersonic capability. This switch was accompanied by a move of headquarters to Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. It also signaled a shift in their performance routine—for example, the Cuban 8 opening routine was dropped, and emphasis was placed on low, screaming flyovers and demonstrations of takeoff performance. For a time, if the show's sponsor permitted it, the pilots would create a "sonic boom." (This ended when the FAA banned supersonic flight over the continental U.S.)

In 1960 a decision was made to allow the tail vertical stabilizer of the slot plane, black from exhaust of the other planes, to remain black. (Contrary to rumor, the stabilizer has never been painted black.) In 1961, the team was compelled to discontinue the vertical bank maneuver due to an FAA regulation prohibiting aerobatics that pointed the nose of the aircraft toward the crowd. 1962 saw the introduction of dual solo routines, and the Thunderbirds went on their first European deployment in 1963. The team switched to the F-105 Thunderchief for a brief period, but returned to the F-100 in 1964 after only six airshows, following Capt. Gene Devlin's death resulting from structural instability of the aircraft in a high-G climbing maneuver.

By 1967, the Thunderbirds had flown their 1,000th show. In 1969, the squadron adopted the F-4E Phantom, which it flew until 1973, switching to the T-38 Talon, mainly due to considerations of fuel efficiency (the team had been grounded for some time during the 1973 energy crisis). The switch to the T-38 also saw an alteration of the flight routine to exhibit the aircraft's maneuverability in tight turns.

1982 saw another disaster for the Thunderbirds. In what is referred to as the "Diamond Crash," a malfunction of the lead plane caused a collision which resulted in the deaths of four pilots: Maj. Norm Lowry, Capt. Willie Mays, Capt. Pete Peterson and Capt. Mark Melancon.

In 1983 the team switched to the F-16 Fighting Falcon, which had been under consideration even before the "Diamond Crash." The team still flies the F-16, having switched from the A model to the F-16C in 1992. These are almost identical to current combat aircraft, the only difference being the replacement of the 20mm cannon with a smoke-generating system to create a contrail. If necessary, the planes could be made combat-ready in less than 72 hours.
Thunderbirds performing their signature "bomb burst" maneuver

In 1986, the Thunderbirds did a flyby for the rededication of the Statue of Liberty, which was viewed by tens of millions. They also performed the first American military demonstration in a Communist country when they did an air show in Beijing, China in 1987. Their 3,000th air show was performed in 1990. In 1996, the team participated in the Atlanta Olympics' opening ceremonies, which were viewed by an estimated 3.5 billion people worldwide. The squadron celebrated its 50th anniversary on June 1, 2003.

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