Thunderbirds accelerate change with first-ever F-16 conversion

The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds conducted the in-house conversion of a traditional F-16 Fighting Falcon to a Thunderbirds demonstration aircraft over the past seven months, and this newest addition to the fleet successfully took flight on May 5, 2021, at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.

This transformation is the first time in Thunderbirds history the team has converted an aircraft.

Traditionally, F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft are sent to Hill Air Force Base in Utah to receive their patriotic red, white and blue makeover before joining the Thunderbirds. While the timelines have differed in the past, the squadron’s recent in- house conversion reduced the completion time by more than 100 days and saved the Air Force roughly 1.5 million dollars.

The conversion of the F-16, tail number A91-0470, was led by a dedicated team of five Thunderbirds maintenance Airmen who worked around the clock since November 2020 to ensure this two-seater aircraft was operationally ready for the 2021 show season.

This diverse group of Airmen specialize in various air force career specialties across the maintenance career field including integrated avionics systems, aircraft structural maintenance, electrical and environmental systems, and general tactical aircraft maintenance.

Together, they pulled off a historical mission deemed too difficult to even attempt in past years.

“Converting the F-16 locally is an incredible testament to the capabilities of our Thunderbird Airmen and team Nellis as a whole,” said Capt. Michael Bell, Thunderbirds maintenance officer. “Taking this innovative approach and accelerating change within the Thunderbirds squadron allowed our maintainers to gain a lot of institutional knowledge and enhance the squadron’s capabilities by building it themselves.”

Transforming a combat-ready F-16 into a high-flying Thunderbirds jet requires more than you’d probably imagine. Not only did the Airmen have to remove the aircraft’s 20MM Gatling gun and ammunition drum to make way for a smoke oil system with integrated plumbing that works in concert with avionics systems and the engine; but they also painted the entire jet with its traditional paint scheme by hand.

Staff Sgt. Joshua Sacerio, a structural maintenance technician on the dedicated conversion team, had a vital role in the conversion process. For his efforts, he was given the opportunity to fly in the back seat on the aircraft’s third training mission.

“It was truly rewarding to see the conversion come full circle,” said Sacerio. “It was a very sentimental experience working on the aircraft day-in and day-out for the past seven months; and then to fly in the jet for my first-ever flight was absolutely incredible.”

He added it was fulfilling to see the white smoke trail behind the jet while performing aileron rolls during his flight because it was a direct result of the time and effort he put in to fabricating and installing the smoke system.

Along with Sacerio, Master Sgt. Tyler Roberts, Tech. Sgt. Antwaun Westerfield, Staff Sgt. Jaimee Smith and Staff Sgt. Joshua Seda devoted countless hours toward the substantial task.

This new process proved to be extremely efficient and saved the Air Force time, manpower and money. Due to the success of this transformative effort, another traditional F-16 Fighting Falcon has begun its conversion in the Thunderbirds hangar with a new team of dedicated maintenance professionals. Its projected maiden flight is coming this winter.


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