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, Arizona. The unit adopted the name “Thunderbirds,” influence in part by the strong Native American culture and folklore from the southwestern United States.
Seven officers and 22 enlisted were selected for the first demonstration team. From these humble beginnings and this group of men, the Air Force Thunderbird legend was born.
The team flew and maintained the F84G Thunderjet. The straight-wing configuration of the F-84G was considered well suited for aerobatic and demonstration maneuvers.
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 team moved to Nellis AFB, Nevada.
Nearly forgotten, the F-105B Thunderchief performed only six shows. Following an unfortunate accident in the F-105, the team transitioned back to the Super Sabre and the F-100 remained with them for nearly 13 years.
In the spring of 1969, the team received the first of the new McDonnell Douglas F4-E Phantom IIs. In 1974, a spreading fuel crisis inspired a new aircraft for the team, the T-38A Talon.
Remaining true to its character to showcase the latest advancement in America’s fighter technology, the first F-16A assigned to the Thunderbirds was delivered to Nellis AFB on Jun. 22, 1982.
In 1997, the team performed 57 demonstrations for more than 12 million people in the spirit and theme of the Air Force’s 50th anniversary.
Since the team’s inception, 343 officers have worn the distinguished emblem of “America’s Ambassadors in blue.”
The Thunderbirds Show Line consists of 24 professionals in various aircraft maintenance specialties. During the 2016 season, its 63rd year, the team will perform 71 demonstrations in 39 locations and spend approximately 170 days on the road.
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.
For more about the Thunderbirds, visit www.afthunderbirds.com.