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Why are they called the Thunderbirds?

I'm sure almost all of us have seen the U.S. Air Force flight demonstration team fly at some airshow around the country. The group has been flying the airshow circuit for forty years now and more than 269 million people have witnessed their flying skills. They've flown 3263 performances in every state of the union and in 56 other countries.

Ten years after the dawn of the Jet Age, the safety and reliability of what was still a new breed of aircraft was yet to be proven. Twenty-two of America's best were chosen to demonstrate the professional competeance and skill of the Air Force pilots and support personnel. The group was activated at Luke Field on May 25, 1953. This was America's primary fighter pilot training base in Glendale, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix. This was the first U.S. military flight demonstration team to be, from the start, a jet unit. The Blue Angels are older, but they began flying prop-driven Grumman F8F Bearcats.

The story goes that on one of their early practice flights, the planes flew over the then-future site of the American Graduate School of International Management in Glendale and they saw the Thunderbird symbol still visible on a hanger roof. Right then and there they decided they would be called the Thunderbirds. The field that they flew from, some three miles east of Luke became Thunderbird Field #1 and later became Glendale Municipal Airport. Now it is home to many homebuilts and the local EAA chapter. The Ford car with the same name came out in 1955 and was often used in advertising along with the planes.

The group first flew Republic F-84F Thunderjets. In 1995 transitioned to the swept wing F-84G. Then the unit moved to Nellis AFB in Las Vegas in 1956, it got the F-100C Super Sabre to become the world's first supersonic flight team. Briefly in 1964 they flew the Republic F-105 Thunderchief, nicknamed the "Thud". In 1969 came the burly McDonnel Douglas F-4E Phantom 11, then the Northrop T-38A Talon, the standard USAF advanced trainer. In 1983 they got the newest frontline fighter, the General Dynamics F-16A Fighting Falcon and upgraded in 1992 to the F-16C. The squadron features eight pilots, three support officers and more than 130 enlisted people performing in 33 different career fields.

In 1974 the Thunderbird Balloon Classic was born at this same Glendale Field when 16 hot air balloons went aloft. Now twenty years later 135 balloons ascended in what has become one of the top five ballooning events in the country and is the number on "Hot Air Affair" in the Valley of the Sun. Of course an air show followed and included the original occupants of the field, the Thunderbirds.

Look for them at some show in the area and look especially for the familiar design painted on the bottom of the planes.

Len Marzewski
Past President
EAA Chapter 113