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 Force’s official air demonstration team, designated the 3600th Air Demonstration Unit, was activated at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. The unit adopted the name “Thunderbirds,” 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 were selected for the first demonstration team. Major Dick Catledge, a training squadron commander at Luke AFB, was chosen as the team’s leader. Twins Bill and Buck Pattillo were selected and flew the left and right wing, respectively. The Pattillos, both captains, were ideal choices as both had flown with a demonstration team for the previous three years. For the difficult position of slot, the position sandwiched between both wingmen and behind the leader, Capt. Bob Kanaga was selected. The spare pilot was Capt. Bob McCormick. Like the Pattillo brothers, he also had demonstration team experience. First Lieutenant Aubry Brown served as the maintenance officer for the team. Lieutenant Brown, along with Master Sgt. Earl Young, selected 21 enlisted men to help maintain the team’s aircraft. Captain Bill Brock was the final officer selected for the team. He served as the information officer and team narrator.
From these humble beginnings and this group of men, the Air Force Thunderbird legend was born.
The team flew and maintained the F-84G Thunderjet. The straight-wing configuration of the F-84G was considered well suited for aerobatic and demonstration maneuvers, though the aircraft could not exceed the speed of sound.
A series of formation aerobatics, lasting a total of 15 minutes, comprised the original demonstration. The “solo” was not originally incorporated into the demonstration, however, as the season progressed, the team took opportunities to perform “solo” maneuvers with a spare aircraft.
Always trying to display the most advanced fighters of the age, the swept-wing F-84F Thunderstreak became the team’s new aircraft in 1955.
After one season in the F-84F Thunderstreak, the Thunderbirds traded aircraft again and became the world’s first supersonic aerial demonstration team as it transitioned to the F-100C Super Sabre in 1956. That same year, to simplify logistics and maintenance for the aircraft, the Thunderbirds moved to Nellis AFB, Nev. Although never a regular part of the show, the solo would fly supersonic at the request of an air show sponsor in 1956. Eventually, the Federal Aviation Administration banned all supersonic flight at air shows, and consequently, today’s sequence is entirely subsonic.
Nearly forgotten, the F-105B Thunderchief performed only six shows between April 26 and May 9, 1964. Following an unfortunate accident in the F-105, the team transitioned back to the Super Sabre following the incident and the F-100 remained 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, received the first of the new McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom IIs and began the team’s conversion.
The F-4’s conversion was the most extensive in the team’s history. Among several other modifications, the paint scheme changed due to the variations in chemicals, which allows paint used on the F-4 to resist heat and friction at Mach II speeds. As a result, the white paint base was developed and remains a part of today’s Thunderbird aircraft design.
In 1974, a spreading fuel crisis inspired a new aircraft for the team, the T-38A Talon. 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.
Remaining true to its character to showcase the latest advancement in America’s fighter technology, the first red, white and blue F-16A assigned to the Thunderbirds was delivered to Nellis AFB on Jun. 22, 1982. Due to the conversion to the new aircraft, there were no official shows 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.
In 1997, the Thunderbirds performed 57 demonstrations for more than 12 million people in 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.
The Thunderbirds made television history in 2003 while celebrating their 50th Anniversary. The commander/leader started the Coca-Cola 600 by broadcasting live from Thunderbirds No. 1 as he said, “Gentlemen, start your engines.”
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. The team’s tour included 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 2 demonstrations after leaders throughout the DOD 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.