Luke Air Show: Thunderbirds


Officially, the Thunderbirds are known as the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron.

The squadron’s mission is to plan and present precision aerial maneuvers to exhibit the

capabilities of modern, high-performance aircraft and the high degree of professional skill required to operate those aircraft.

Within this broad mission, the team has five primary objectives:

• Support Air Force recruiting and retention programs

• Reinforce public confidence in the Air Force and to demonstrate to the public the professional competence of Air Force members

• Strengthen morale and esprit de corps among Air Force members

• Support Air Force community relations and people-to-people programs

• Represent the United States and its armed forces to foreign nations and project international goodwill

The team

The Thunderbirds squadron is an Air Combat Command unit composed of eight pilots (including six demonstration pilots), four support officers, four civilians and more than 100 enlisted personnel performing in almost 30 job specialties.

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

The pilots perform approximately 40 maneuvers in a demonstration. The entire show, including the ground show and air demonstration, lasts about 75 minutes. The season typically starts in March and ends in 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.

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

F-16 Fighting Falcon

The Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon represents the full range of capabilities possessed by the Air Force’s tactical fighters. This highly-maneuverable multi-role fighter has proved to be one of the world’s best precision tactical bombers and air-to-air combat aircraft. The only modifications needed to prepare aircraft for air demonstrations are a smoke-generating system and painting in Thunderbird colors.


The Thunderbirds were officially activated June 1, 1953, as the 3600th Air Demonstration Unit at Luke AFB. The unit was nicknamed the “Stardusters.”

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 June 1956, the team moved to its current home at Nellis. At the same time the Thunderbirds traded the veteran F-84 for the world’s first supersonic fighter, the F-100 Super Sabre. In 1964, the team changed briefly to the F-105B Thunderchief, but after only six shows, they returned to the F-100. From 1969 to 1973, the Thunderbirds flew the F-4E Phantom II. In 1974, the Thunderbirds converted to the T-38 Talon, the world’s first supersonic trainer. Early in 1983, the Thunderbirds transitioned to the F-16 Fighting Falcon.

More Stories From This Author