In 1947, while the jet age was still in its infancy, military aviation 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, Arizona. The unit adopted the name “Thunderbirds,” influenced by the strong Native American culture and folklore from the Southwestern United States where Luke Air Force Base in located. Seven officers, and 22 enlisted were selected for the first demonstration team.
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 part of 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. 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 demonstrated the capabilities of a prominent Air Force aircraft. Remaining true to showcasing 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 June 22, 1982. The team flew the F-16 during the 1983 show season; making it the team’s ninth aircraft and 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. 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 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.