In 1947, while the jet age was still in its infancy, military aviation
was hurtled into the future with the creation of the U.S. Air Force
as a separate service. Just six years later, on May 25, 1953, the
Air Forces official air demonstration team, designated the
3600th Air Demonstration Unit, was activated at Luke Air Force Base,
The name Thunderbirds was soon adopted by the unit;
influenced in part by the strong Indian culture and folklore of
the southwestern United States where Luke is located. Indian legend
speaks of the Thunderbird with great fear and respect. To some it
was a giant eagle
others envisioned a hawk. When it took
to the skies, the earth trembled from the thunder of its great wings.
From its eyes shot bolts of lightning. Nothing in nature could challenge
the bird of thunder, the story said, and no man could stand against
its might. The story of the Thunderbird was repeated, voice-by-voice,
across the generations, until at last, it assumed the immortality
A more appropriate name couldn't have been selected, as it is with
the same commanding presence the Thunderbirds took to the skies.
Seven officers and 22 enlisted were selected for the first demonstration
team, most were handpicked from the cadre at Luke.
Maj. Dick Catledge, a training squadron commander at Luke, was
chosen as the teams leader. Twins Bill and Buck Patillo were
selected and would fly left and right wing, respectively. The Patillo's,
both captains, were ideal choices as both had been with the SkyBlazers,
a USAF/Europe demonstration team, for the past 3 years. For the
difficult position of slot, the position sandwiched between both
wingmen and behind the leader, Capt. Bob Kanaga was selected, an
instructor at Luke. The spare pilot would be Capt. Bob McCormick.
Like the Patillo brothers, he also had demonstration team experience,
having flown right wing with the Sabre Dancers, a predecessor
to the Thunderbirds. 1st Lt. Aubrey Brown would serve as maintenance
officer for the team. He, with his senior enlisted man, MSgt. Earl
Young, selected 21 enlisted men to help maintain the teams
aircraft. Capt. Bill Brock was the final officer selected for the
team serving as the information services officer and team narrator.
From these humble beginnings and this group of men, the Air Force
Thunderbird legend was born.
The first aircraft selected for the new demonstration team was
the straight wing F-84G Thunderjet built by Republic Aviation. Their
straight wing configuration was considered well suited for aerobatic
maneuvers, and although the aircraft could not exceed the speed
of sound, like some military aircraft, it easily met the needs of
a demonstration aircraft.
1953 to 1955 Republic F-84G Thunderjet
original demonstration sequence consisted of a series of formation
aerobatics lasting 15 minutes. The spare pilot took-off a few minutes
in advance of the Diamond to run a weather check, advise of any
encroaching traffic, reiterate the location of obstructions and
then landed to be used as a spare aircraft. As the season progressed,
the opportunity was utilized to perform solo maneuvers
with the spare aircraft while the Diamond burned off fuel and repositioned
out of sight of the crowd.
1955 to 1956 Republic F-84F Thunderstreak
of their mission to show the Air Forces best aircraft, the
Air Force selected the swept wing F-84F Thunderstreak as their second
aircraft in 1955. The Thunderstreak was modified for the team by
adding smoke tanks for the first time, and red, white and blue drag
With the move from the F-84F to the F-100 Super Sabre in 1956,
the Thunderbirds became the worlds first supersonic aerial
demonstration team. That same year, the Thunderbirds moved to Nellis
Air Force Base, Nevada, simplifying logistics and maintenance for
never a routine part of the Thunderbird show in 1956, the solo would
fly supersonic at the request of the air show sponsor. Eventually,
the Federal Aviation Authority, a precursor to the Federal Aviation
Administration, banned all supersonic flight at air shows and consequently,
todays sequence is entirely subsonic.
1964 North American F-100C Super Sabre
1964 Republic F-105B Thunderchief
Almost a footnote in the history of Thunderbird aviation, the Republic-built
F-105B Thunderchief performed only six shows between April 26 and May9,
1964.Extensive modifications to the F-105 were necessary, and rather
than cancel the rest of the show season to accomplish this,the Thunderbirds
quickly transitioned back to the Super Sabre.
1964 to 1969 North American F-100C Super Sabre
While the switch back
to the F-100D was supposed to be temporary, the F-105 never returned
to the Thunderbird hangar. The F-100 ended up staying with the team
for nearly 13 years.
The Thunderbirds started the 1969 training season still in the
F-100Ds, but in the spring of 1969 the team received the first of
the new McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom IIs and began the teams
1969 to 1973 McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom II
F-4s conversion was the most extensive in the teams
history. Among other modifications, paints that had worked on the
F-100 made the F-4 look patchy because of multicolored alloys used
in the F-4 to resist heat and friction at Mach II speeds. As a result,
a polyurethane paint base was developed and used to cover the problem.
The white paint base remains a part of todays Thunderbird
Compared with its predecessors, the F-4 was immense. It was big.
It was heavy. It was powerful. With the earth-shaking roar
J-79 engines from the four diamond aircraft, no demonstration aircraft
accomplished the mission of representing American airpower more
impressively than the Phantom.
1974 to 1982 Northrop T-38A Talon
brought with it a fuel crisis and as a result a new aircraft for
the team, the sleek, swift and highly maneuverable Northrop T-38A
Talon, the Air Forces first supersonic trainer. Economically,
the T-38 was unmatched. Five T-38s used the same amount of fuel
needed for one F-4 Phantom, and fewer people and less equipment
were required to maintain the aircraft.
Although the Talon did not fulfill the Thunderbird tradition of
flying front-line jet fighters, it did meet the criteria of demonstrating
the capabilities of a prominent Air Force aircraft.
The T-38A was used throughout the Air Force during this time period
in a variety of roles because of its design, economy of operation,
ease of maintenance, high performance and exceptional safety record.
In fact, Air Force fighter pilots still use this aircraft during
undergraduate pilot training today.
In honor of the nations 200th birthday in 1976, the Thunderbirds
were designated as the official United States Bicentennial Organization.
For the Bicentennial year only, the aircraft numbers were moved
to the fuselage and the Bicentennial symbol replaced the numbers
on the tail.
1982 to Present Lockeed Martin F-16A Falcon
1983, the team returned to the tradition of flying a premier fighter
aircraft; transitioning to the General Dynamics, later Lockheed
Martins, F-16A Fighting Falcon. To ready the F-16 involved
removing the radar and internally mounted 20mm cannon and installing
a smoke-generating system.
Remaining true to its character to showcase the latest advancement
in Americas fighter technology, in 1992 the team transitioned
to Lockheed Martins advanced F-16C, the teams ninth
aircraft. With the teams last demonstration in the F-16A,
the Thunderbirds were the last active duty unit to use the A model.
The C model looks similar to its predecessor, but has upgraded
avionics and radar systems, making it superior to the A model. A
true multi-role fighter, the F-16C has an unequaled record in actual
Additionally, it is the only fighter to win both of the Air Forces
premier competitions - Gunsmoke, air-to-ground and William Tell,
The F-16 has remained the choice of the Thunderbirds for the last
20 years, the longest performance era of any one aircraft. It is
a stellar performer for the Thunderbirds, the U.S. Air Force and
the 24 other nations whose boundaries it patrols and defends.
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