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USAF Air Demonstration Squadron

The US Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron traces its official lineage to the 30th Aero Squadron which was organized on 13 June 1917 at Camp Kelly (later, Kelly Field), TX. Assigned, from September 1917-January 1919, to the Third Aviation Instruction Center, the squadron was tasked with repairing and overhauling aircraft engines in France; a mission which lasted until November 1918. The squadron was demobilized on 14 April 1919 at Mitchel Field, NY.

Reconstituted, and redesignated as the 30th Bombardment Squadron, on 24 March 1923, the unit reactivated on 24 June 1932 at Rockwell Field, CA, under the 19th Bombardment Group (though a ground echelon was attached to 5th Interceptor Command, c. 20 December 1941- May 1942). The squadron then saw combat in the Southwest Pacific, from 7 December 1941-c. 16 November 1942; and a ground echelon fought with infantry units, in the Philippines Islands, from c. 20 December 1941-May 1942. The unit then provided replacement training in the US, from 1943 to 1944. It inactivated on 1 April 1944 at Pyote AAB, TX.

It reactivated on 1 April 1944 at Great Bend AAFld, KS, and saw combat in the Western Pacific from c. 12 February-15 August 1945. It then saw combat in Korea, from 28 June 1950-25 July 1953. It was discontinued, and inactivated, on 1 February 1963 at Grand Forks AFB, ND.

The unit was consolidated on 19 September 1985 with the unit constituted as the USAF Air Demonstration Squadron which was officially activated on 13 February 1967 and organized on 25 February 1967.

However, the real inception of the US Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, "Thunderbirds", came about on June 1, 1953 when the 3600th Air Demonstration Team which was declared operational. At that time, the 3600th had already been practicing for 6 weeks prior to that date. The team had no name then. During June 1953, a contest was held at Luke AFB, home of the 3600th, to pick a name for the new team. The name chosen was "Thunderbirds".

The first Thunderbirds team was handpicked from the cadre at Luke AFB, home of the Air Force Advanced Flight Training School, the jet fighter school. The first show was put on June 8, 1953, at Luke AFB, and the first show conducted by the unit before a very large audience took place on September 5-7, 1953, at the Dayton Aircraft Show.

The squadron switched, early in 1955, from the F-84G aircraft, to the swept wing Republic F-84F "Thunderstreak". after having used the F-84F for 91 shows, the Thunderbirds then transitioned to the F-100C aircraft, becoming in the process the World's First Supersonic Air Demonstration Team. The F-100Cs were specially modified, with among other things, certain items removed such as the autopilot function and the radar ranging system while a VHF radio system was installed. The F-100Cs resulted in many things for the squadron: supersonic capabilities, new maneuvers, and a relocation to Nellis AFB, NV.

The squadron converted to the Fairchild C-123B Provider in 1958, receiving 2 of these, in replacement of its old C-119Fs. That same year, the squadron was awarded the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award. The following year, the team made its first deployment to the Far East, without its aircraft, as the unit's F-100Cs did not possess inflight refueling capabilities. While deployed there, the squadron used F-100Ds assigned to the 18th TFW. This problem was corrected the following year, when the Thunderbirds' F-100Cs were modified for inflight refueling. On December 17, 1963, the 690th and final F-100C show was performed. 1964 would bring transition into the F-105B "Thunderchief". However, an accident that year grounded the team and, rather than cancel the entire season to undertake modifications to the aircraft, the squadron transitioned to the F-100D.

The squadron next transitioned to the F-4E aircraft, performing 518 demonstrations with it, the last of which took place on November 10, 1973, before the energy crisis forced the team to switch to the smaller and more economical Northrop T-38A Talon. Although not as big and loud as the F-4E, the T-38 was able to turn around between maneuvers much quicker and in less distance. Moreover, in addition to a greatly increased fuel economy, the aircraft required less personnel and equipment for maintenance purposes. With 1976 being the birthday of the United States, the Thunderbirds were designated as an official United States Bicentennial Organization.

January 18, 1982, saw the catastrophic "Diamond Crash" occur during a practice over Range 65, now referred to as "The Gathering of Eagles Range". The team was conducting a line abreast loop maneuver, when a malfunction of the commander/leader's aircraft proved to be fatal for the four pilots of the Diamond formation. Those involved were: Maj. Norm Lowry, commander/leader; Capt. Willie Mays, left wing; Capt. Pete Peterson, right wing; and Capt. Mark Melncon, slot. Due to this catastrophe and the transition to a new aircraft, the Thunderbirds did not perform any aerial demonstrations during the 1982 demonstration season.

The team began the transition to the General Dynamics F-16A Fighting Falcon in August 1982. Not until April 2, 1983, however, was the first performance flown in the F-16s, more than 18 months since the last show. The conversion to the F-16 involved removing the radar and an internally-mounted 20mm cannon, and installing a smoke-generating system. The Thunderbirds F-16s can be turned into gully combat-capable places within 72 hours.

In 1987, the Thunderbirds took to the road for their first Far East tour since 1959. Also konwn as "The Friendship Tour", the team visited Guam, China, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Australia, Hawaii, the Philippines, the Republic of Korea, and Japan. The flag of Formosa (now Taiwan) was removed from the flag panel, during the team's visit to the People's Republic of China. The visit to Beijing included a fly-over the Great Wall of China, and marked the first time the team performed in a communist country. In all, 29,000 air miles were covered with two C-141s and a KC-10 in support of the 15 official air demonstrations. In 1988, the annual exchange program between the Thunderbirds and the Blue Angels began. This program exists so that both teams can gather information and benefit from each other.

The F-16B was first flown in an air show outside the United States during a trop to Mexico in 1989. The F-16B flew in five official air shows. On October 5, 1989, the team flew to Luke AFB, AZ, to fly a private demonstration for the Soviet Union Defense Minister, Gen. Dimitri Yazov.

In 1990, as a result of Operations Desert Shield/Storm, the demonstration season was shortened and the overseas tour canceled. During the crisis in the Middle East, the team lost its C-141 support, and for the first time since 1975, relied on two C-130s for transport. As the Thunderbirds finished their 1991 demonstration season, the team said good-bye to the F-16As and Bs. In 1992, the team converted to F-16C/D aircraft which came from the 57th Fighter Weapons Wing.

Midway through the 1993 season, the team reverted to using C-130s midway through the season due to problems found in the C-141B Air Force inventory. After returning from a European tour in 1996, the team performed the national anthem flyby as part of the opening Olympic ceremonies in Atlanta, GA. The Thunderbirds represented the United States Air Force by being represented on the official Air Force 50th Anniversary stamp.

The US Air Force Demonstration Squadron perform precision aerial maneuvers to exhibit the capabilities of modern high-performance aircraft to people throughout the world, and to show the professional qualities of the Air Force people who fly, maintain, and support these aircraft.

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 02:16:55 ZULU