The USAF’s Thunderbirds Mark 70 Years of Flight

During an Aviation Nation air show at Nellis AFB, a Thunderbird sneak pass begins… – Ken Kula photo

Photographers include: Scott Zeno, Tim Adams, Bob Finch, Ken Middleton, Don Linn, Ken Kula, and USAF photographers Master Sgt. Mark C. Olsen and Staff Sgt. Dakota Carter

This year, 2023, marks the 70th year of the United States Air Force’s Thunderbirds, officially known as the “U. S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron”. Over the years, eight specific aircraft types have flown demonstrations in front of millions of spectators. Former and current Thunderbird crew members exceed several thousand servicemen and women in number. Their service to our country is on display at every air show they perform at and is greatly appreciated. Below is the official history of the Air Force Squadron, through the year 2010. Beyond that, we’ll add some additional highlights.

March down about to commence, at the 2006 Amigo Airshow at El Paso, TX – Scott Zeno photo

The U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, the Thunderbirds, performs precision aerial maneuvers demonstrating the capabilities of Air Force high performance aircraft to people throughout the world. The squadron exhibits the professional qualities the Air Force develops in the people who fly, maintain and support these aircraft.

Objectives of the squadron are:
– To support Air Force recruiting and retention programs
– To reinforce public confidence in the Air Force and to demonstrate to the public the professional competence of Air Force members
– To strengthen morale and esprit de corps among Air Force members
– To support Air Force community relations and people-to-people programs
– To represent the United States and its armed forces to foreign nations and to project international goodwill

Lead Solo of the 2011 season, Major Arron Jelinek banks away from a 157th ARW KC-135R – Ken Kula photo

The Team
The Thunderbirds squadron is an Air Combat Command unit composed of eight pilots (including six demonstration pilots), four support officers, three civilians and more than 130 enlisted personnel performing in 25 career fields.

A Thunderbirds air demonstration is a mix of formation flying and solo routines. The four-aircraft diamond formation demonstrates the training and precision of Air Force pilots, while the solo aircraft highlight the maximum capabilities of the F-16 Fighting Falcon.

The U.S. Air Force’s Thunderbirds display both precision and professionalism – Tim Adams photo

The pilots perform approximately 30 maneuvers in a demonstration. The entire show, including ground and air, runs about an hour and fifteen minutes. The season lasts from March to November, with the winter months used to train new members.

Officers serve a two-year assignment with the squadron, while enlisted personnel serve three to four. Replacements must be trained for about half of the team each year, providing a constant mix of experience.

A Thunderbird crossover – Bob Finch photo
The squadron performs approximately 75 demonstrations each year and has never canceled a demonstration due to maintenance difficulty. More than 300 million people in all 50 states and 58 foreign countries have seen the red, white and blue jets in more than 4,000 aerial demonstrations.

In addition to their responsibilities as the official U.S. Air Force aerial demonstration team, the Thunderbirds are part of our combat force. If required, the team’s personnel and aircraft can be rapidly integrated into a fighter unit at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. Since the aircraft are only slightly modified, they can be made combat-ready in less than 72 hours.

F-16 Fighting Falcon – Ken Middleton photo
The Lockheed Martin (formerly General Dynamics) F-16 represents the full range of capabilities possessed by the Air Force’s tactical fighters. This highly maneuverable multi-role fighter has proven to be one of the world’s best precision tactical bombers and air-to-air combat aircraft. The only modifications needed to prepare the aircraft for its air demonstration role are installing a smoke-generating system in the space normally reserved for the 20mm cannon, and the painting of the aircraft in Thunderbird colors.

F-84G Thunderjet, flown in 1953. Photo from USAF archives

The Thunderbirds were officially activated June 1, 1953, as the 3600th Air Demonstration Team at Luke AFB, Ariz. Their first aircraft was the straight-winged F-84G Thunderjet, a combat fighter-bomber that had seen action in Korea. Early in 1955 the team transitioned to the swept-winged F-84F Thunderstreak.

In 1953 the Thunderbirds were assigned one T-33 for the team’s narrator and the practice continues today with the Thunderbird’s F-16D. This T-33, 58-0665, was restored as a Thunderbird in the 1950s and flies today on the air show circuit.  Seen at the London International Air Show in June 1998 and owned at the time by Randall Jones, registered as NX556RH. – Don Linn photo

North American F-100D Super Sabre at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, flown between 1964 through 1966. (U.S. Air Force photo)

In June 1956, the team moved to its current home at Nellis. At the same time theThunderbirds traded the veteran F-84 for the world’s first supersonic fighter, the F-100 Super Sabre — an aerial platform that would serve the Thunderbirds for 13 years. More than 1,000 demonstrations were flown in the Super Sabre, thrilling spectators around the world. The team changed briefly to the Republic F-105 Thunderchief. After only six shows, in 1964, due to an extensive modification that became necessary on all Thunderchiefs, the Thunderbirds returned to the F-100

The Thunderbirds flew the McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom II from 1969 through 1973 – Ken Middleton photo

From 1969 to 1973, the Thunderbirds flew the Air Force’s front-line fighter, the F-4E Phantom. In 1974, the Thunderbirds converted to the T-38 Talon, the world’s first supersonic trainer. The T-38 was more fuel-efficient and less costly to maintain than the larger F-4.

For the first time since 1972, the iconic RAF Red Arrows Aerobatic Team (RAFAT) in their new gleaming Red BAe Hawks returned to the US in 1983 on their North American tour. The Red Arrows and the Thunderbirds flew their individual flight demonstrations at McGuire AFB during Memorial Day show air show. Later, the two teams posed for photos, the Thunderbirds in their rare white flight suits and the Red Arrows in the brilliant red flight suits. – Don Linn photo

Northrop T-38A was flown from 1974 through 1982 – Don Linn photo

The largest crowd, 2.25 million people, to see a performance was at Coney Island, N.Y., July 4, 1987. The 1987 Far East tour marked their debut in Beijing, China — the first American military demonstration performance in a Communist country.

Operation Desert Storm cancelled the 1990 European tour and the season was shortened. The team converted to the F-16C in 1992, bringing the F-16A era to an end.

Thunderbirds pre-flight show line with crew chiefs at attention – Scott Zeno photo

 In July 1996, the team participated in opening ceremonies of the Centennial Olympics held in Atlanta which were viewed by an estimated 3.5 billion people around the world.

The Thunderbirds made television history in 2003 while celebrating their 50th Anniversary. The commander/leader started the Coca-Cola 600 by broadcasting live from Thunderbird No. 1 as he said, “Gentlemen, start your engines.”

Solo pilots perform the Reflection Pass – Scott Zeno photo

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, and the United Kingdom – and for the first time in Thunderbird history – Ireland.

In 2009, the Thunderbirds traveled back to the Pacific Rim, performing in locations like Malaysia, Guam, Australia, Korea and Japan. The team performed more than 70 shows in 22 states and Puerto Rico.

The Thunderbirds performing at their home in Las Vegas, Nevada – Ken Kula photo

The 2010 season, the team’s 57th year of performing, saw the team in 73 shows all over the United States and Canada. Spending more than 250 days on the road representing Airmen, millions of people have witnessed the Thunderbird demonstrations. 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.

The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds announced its 2013 show schedule Dec. 11 [2012 – editor]. In its 60th season, the team is slated to perform more than 60 demonstrations in 38 locations, including a six-week tour through the Pacific.

Another crossover by the two solo F-16s – Tim Adams photo

“This year will be even more special. It’ll be our 60th anniversary, and we’ll get the amazing opportunity to travel across Asia and tell the U.S. Air Force story to people who don’t get to hear it very often,” said Lt. Col. Greg Moseley, Thunderbirds commander and lead pilot. “That’s what this job is all about — representing Airmen around the world.”

The Air Force’s flight demonstration team, the Thunderbirds, will kick off their 2015 season with a Feb. 1 show at the Super Bowl in Phoenix.

“We are extremely excited to represent the Air Force during the upcoming season,” Lt. Col. Greg Moseley, Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron commander and lead pilot, said in a release. “Our newest team members have been training rigorously to ensure we execute our mission safely while showing the public what their Airmen can do.”

Moseley will hand over command of the team on Jan. 7, before the first show. Lt. Col. Christopher Hammond, director of operations for the 16th Fighter Squadron at the Air Force Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, will take command.

The Thunderbirds first female pilot was Nicole Malachowski – Ken Kula photo

In 2016, the United States Air Force celebrated its 75th Anniversary with a grand air show at the Thunderbirds home at Nellis AFB. Known as “75 Years of Airpower: the 2016 Aviation Nation Air Show”, scores of aircraft descended upon the Las Vegas ramps. The following year, another Aviation Nation air show was held, and it looked like a season finale could become a tradition at Nellis.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the 2020 air show season.

What occurred the following year, 2021, was something which caught a lot of seasoned airshow enthusiasts by surprise, much to their satisfaction.


In a show of national solidarity, the Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron, the Blue Angels, and the Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, the Thunderbirds, will conduct a series of multi-city flyovers over the next two weeks.

America Strong is a collaborative salute from the Navy and Air Force to recognize healthcare workers, first responders, and other essential personnel while standing in solidarity with all Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re excited to fly over cities across America as our way of saying thanks to the healthcare workers, first responders, and all the people who selflessly run into the breach working to keep America strong,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein, and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday. “This is also our way of showing that we are all in this together and that America’s spirit will prevail.”

The two demonstration teams will fly over areas of the country hardest hit by COVID-19, starting next week as both joint and individual team flights occurring every one-to-two days until mid-May.

The multi-team formations, as well as dissimilar formations of U. S. A. F. bombers and fighters gave morale a much-needed boost for millions of people under those stressful conditions.

As we see the end of seven decades of service by the Thunderbirds, a new year has already begun with the Squadron already completing the first third of their 33-event tour. The so-called” Ambassadors in Blue” have a busy season still ahead, and again, we greatly appreciate their service, and their professionalism!

What might have been?

The United States Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron “Thunderbirds” perform in Biloxi, Mississippi, April 28-30, 2023. The Thunderbirds headlined the Thunder Over The Sound air show to demonstrate the pride, precision, and professionalism of the 695,000 total force American Airmen across the globe. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Dakota Carter)
U.S. Air Force Thunderbird F-16 Fighting Falcons wait to be refueled by KC-10 Extender crewed by Reserve Citizen Airmen with the 78th Air Refueling Squadron, 514th Air Mobility Wing, over the United States Nov. 1, 2018. The 514th is an Air Force Reserve Command unit located at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Mark C. Olsen)
A U.S. Air Force Thunderbird F-16 Fighting Falcon moves away after being refueled by a KC-10 Extender crewed by Reserve Citizen Airmen with the 78th Air Refueling Squadron, 514th Air Mobility Wing, over the United States Nov. 1, 2018. The 514th is an Air Force Reserve Command unit located at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Mark C. Olsen)

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