Lockheed Martin F-16C Fighting Falcon Thunderbirds #5
Lockheed Martin F-16C/D Fighting Falcon (Block 52) 2009 – until? The 2009 show season marks the transition to the US Air Force’s premier, front-line F-16 fighter. The Block 52s have an upgraded Avionics package that brings the Thunderbird fleet into alignment with the rest of the worldwide F-16 fleet. Additionally, the more powerful Pratt & Whitney 229 engine adds an additional 3,600 lbs of thrust. This in turn increases the maximum allowable gross weight for ground handling, taxi, takeoff and in-flight maneuvers nearly 5000 lbs. Note: The F-16 represents 53% of USAF Fighter Force Structure and 49% of the USAF’s total combat force (source: USAF as of 6/07)
The Squadron was activated, after 6 months training in an unofficial status, on January 1, 1953 as the 3600th Air Demonstration Team at Luke AFB, just west of Phoenix. They flew their debut exhibition at Luke a week later, and began public exhibitions at the 1953 Cheyenne Frontier Days in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The team had flown 26 shows by that August. The first team leader was Major General Dick Catledge, and the first plane flown by the squadron was the F-84 Thunderjet. As the F-84G Thunderjet was a single seat fighter, a 2 seat T-33 Shooting Star served as the narrator’s aircraft and was used as the VIP/Press ride aircraft. The T-33 served with the Thunderbirds in this capacity in the 1950s & 1960s.
The next year, the Thunderbirds performed their first overseas air shows, in a tour of South America. A year later, in 1955, they moved to the F-84F Thunderstreak aircraft, in which they performed 91 air shows. The aircraft of the squadron was again changed in June 1956, to the F-100 Super Sabre, which gave the pilots supersonic capability. This switch was accompanied by a move of headquarters to Nellis AFB, Nevada on June 1 with their first show after the move being held on June 23. It also signaled a shift in their performance routine—for example, the Cuban 8 opening routine was dropped, and emphasis was placed on low, screaming flyovers and demonstrations of takeoff performance. For a time, if the show’s sponsor permitted it, the pilots would create a "sonic boom" (this ended when the FAA banned supersonic flight over the continental U.S.)
In 1960 a decision was made to allow the tail (vertical stabilizer) of the #4 slot plane, blackened by the exhaust of the other planes, to remain black. (Contrary to rumor, the stabilizer was never painted black.) This practice remained in force through the 1973 season. In 1961, the team was compelled to discontinue the vertical bank maneuver due to an FAA regulation prohibiting aerobatics that pointed the nose of the aircraft toward the crowd. 1962 saw the introduction of dual solo routines, and the Thunderbirds went on their first European deployment in 1963, the year after the disbanding of the "Skyblazers" (see below). The team switched to the F-105 Thunderchief for a brief period, but returned to the F-100 in 1964 after only six airshows, following Capt. Gene Devlin’s death resulting from structural failure of the aircraft in a high-G climbing maneuver. The F-100 was also judged to be more maneuverable for demonstration displays, and was retained through the 1968 season.
By 1967, the Thunderbirds had flown 1,000 shows. In 1969, the squadron adopted the noisy and huge F-4E Phantom, which it flew until 1973, the only time the Thunderbirds would fly jets similar to those of the Blue Angels, as it was the standard fighter for both services. A special white paint had to be developed to cover high-temperature metals, replacing the bare metal paint scheme of past planes. The white paint scheme has been continued to the present. Due to the 1973 oil crisis, the team was grounded for some time. In 1974 they switched to the more economical T-38 Talon, a supersonic trainer based on the F-5 fighter. Five T-38s used the same amount of fuel needed for one F-4 Phantom. The switch to the T-38 also saw an alteration of the flight routine to exhibit the aircraft’s maneuverability in tight turns, and also ended the era of the black tail on the #4 slot plane, which would now be regularly cleaned and shined like the others.
In 1982, there was another disaster for the Thunderbirds, occurring during pre-season training on January 18. While practicing the 4 plane diamond loop, the formation impacted the ground at high speed, instantly killing all four pilots: Major Norm Lowry, leader, Captain Willie Mays, Captain Pete Peterson and Captain Mark Melancon. The cause of the crash was officially listed by the USAF as the result of a mechanical problem with the #1 aircraft’s control stick actuator. During formation flight, the wing and slot pilots visually cue off of the #1 lead aircraft, completely disregarding their positions in relation to the ground
In 1983, the team returned to front-line fighters with the General Dynamics F-16A Fighting Falcon. They would change to the updated F-16C (now Lockheed-Martin) in 1992, an aircraft which has proven its outstanding effectiveness in both air-to-ground and air superiority competitions.
After switching to the F-16s the Thunderbirds had no major incidents until September 14, 2003 when #6 Pilot, opposing solo, Capt. Chris Strickland failed to calibrate his altimeter to the elevation of Mountain Home AFB where their flight demonstration was to be held. He instead flew with the same settings as their home base of Nellis AFB their home base. Moments after the start of the show Capt. Strickland sent his white F-16 thundering down the runway, pulling vertical then rolling his aircraft over to perform a Split-S, his first maneuver of the show. To the shock and horror of the onlookers, Stricklands aircraft failed to complete the maneuver and instead smashed into the ground less than 500 yards from spectators. "It was really quiet," remembers Michael Draper, who saw the crash first hand. "Nobody said a word until we saw the pilot stand up. Everyone shouted ‘he got out! he got out!’ he got out at the last second."
In 1986, the Thunderbirds did a fly-by for the re-dedication of the Statue of Liberty in New York City, which was viewed by tens of millions. They also performed the first American military demonstration in a Communist country when the team visited Beijing, China in 1987. Their 3,000th air show was performed in 1990. In 1996, the team participated in the Atlanta Olympics’ opening ceremonies, which were viewed by an estimated 3.5 billion people worldwide. The squadron celebrated its 50th anniversary on June 1, 2003.
Also in 2005, the Thunderbirds temporarily grounded themselves pending an investigation into a minor mid-air incident during the Chicago Air & Water Show on August 20. During a diamond formation slow-roll pass, the tip of the missile rail on the right wing of the slot (#4) aircraft contacted the left stabilator of the right (#3) aircraft. A four-foot section of the missile rail snapped off, while the #3 aircraft sustained damage described by one of the Thunderbirds pilots as a "medium deep scratch" to the red paint of the stabilator. Amateur video showed the missile rail falling into the "safety box" on Lake Michigan away from boaters. While there were no injuries and the aircraft remained apparently flightworthy, the demonstration was immediately terminated, all aircraft returned to Gary International Airport, and the Thunderbirds did not return for the second day of the Chicago show. The Right Winger (#3) was Major D. Chris Callahan, and the Slot position (#4) was flown by Major Steve Horton.
The 2007 European Goodwill Tour was conceived as an opportunity to spread international goodwill and demonstrate the pride, precision and professionalism of Airmen worldwide. It was the Thunderbirds’ first visit to Europe after the tragic events of 9-11 and the team took to this monumental challenge with tenacity. History was made at the first stop during an expertly coordinated flag-panel unveiling in Ireland, which highlighted the Thunderbirds’ first-ever air show performance in the country. Despite inclement weather, more than 100,000 people attended the air show, garnering nationwide exposure by Irish media. Coverage also spanned the globe when Air Force Link posted the story and photos provided by the team.
Additional stops along the way included aerial demonstrations in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria’s Graf Ignatievo Air Base, Italy, France and England, where the Thunderbirds participated in The Royal International Air Tattoo, world’s largest air show. VIPs in attendance included Parliament and even British royalty. Outside of aerial demonstrations, the team participated in eight official public relations events attended by heads of state and local civic leaders. There were also multiple community visits with needy children throughout the European theater in an effort to make new friends and eliminate the stereotypical Eastern view of Americans as the world’s police. It took months of planning and hundreds of man-hours to pull it off, but the five-week trip to seven different European countries was diplomatic, historic and sensational.
On November 10 and November 11, 2007, the City of Las Vegas and Nellis AFB saluted the U.S. Air Force, hosting the capstone event of the USAF’s 60th anniversary celebration. Those that came to this historic event witnessed some of the best aerobatic performances and aerial demonstrations seen anywhere in the world. Thanks to endorsement and sponsorship by Las Vegas, Aviation Nation was the most publicized air show in America with more than $680,000 in guaranteed media reaching regional, national and international audiences through an extensive advertising and promotions program.
The 2009 air show schedule
Luke AFB, AZ Mar. 21/22
MacDill AFB, FL Mar. 28/29
Keesler AFB, MS Apr. 4/5
Ceiba, Puerto Rico Apr. 18/19
Langley AFB, VA Apr. 25/26
Robins AFB, GA May 2/3
Branson, MO May 9/10
Andrews AFB, MD May 15/16/17
Wantagh, NY (Jones Beach) May 23/23
USAF Academy, CO May 27
Ellsworth AFB, SD May 30/31
Hill AFB, UT June 6/7
Ocean City, MD June 13/14
Dover AFB, DE June 20/21
Helena, MT June 27/28
Battle Creek, MI July 4/5
Peoria, IL July 11/12
Dayton, OH July 18/19
Cheyenne, WY July 22
Milwaukee, WI July 25/26
Vienna, OH (Youngstown ARB) Aug 8/9
Chicago, IL Aug. 15/16
Atlantic City, NJ Aug. 19
Selfridge ANGB, MI Aug. 22/23
Hillsboro, OR Aug. 29
Cleveland, OH Sep. 5/6/7
Sacramento, CA Sep. 12/13
Hickam AFB, HI Sep. 19/20 (Start of Far East Tour)
The final list of Far East Tour locations is still to be determined
Homestead ARB, FL Nov. 7/8
Nellis AFB, NV Nov. 14/15
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