The main attraction of the 2014 “Thunder Over Solano” Travis Air Expo and Open House is a performance by the United States Air Force Thunderbirds.
Now in its 61st season, the Thunderbirds are the premier aerial demonstration team.
The group last performed at Travis in 2011.
The group performs more than 70 shows per year, showcasing the pride and precision of today’s Air Force.
During the performance, the Thunderbirds perform a mixture of formation flying and solo routines with the F-16 Fighting Falcon to demonstrate the precision and training of Air Force pilots.
The Thunderbirds were officially activated as a unit on May 25, 1953, at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. The unit adopted the name Thunderbirds, influenced in part by the Native American culture and folklore from the southwestern United States where Luke is located.
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 incorporated into 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.
After one season in the F-84F Thunderstreak, the Thunderbirds traded aircraft again and became the world’s first supersonic aerial demonstration team as it transitioned to the F-100C Super Sabre in 1956. That same year, to simplify logistics and maintenance for the aircraft, the Thunderbirds moved to Nellis AFB, Nev.
Although never a regular part of the show, the solo would fly supersonic at the request of an air show sponsor in 1956. Eventually, the Federal Aviation Administration banned all supersonic flight at air shows and, consequently, today’s sequence is entirely subsonic.
Nearly forgotten, the F-105B Thunderchief performed only six shows between April 26 and May 9, 1964. After an accident in the F-105, the team transitioned back to the Super Sabre and the F-100 remained with the team for nearly 13 years.
The Thunderbirds started the 1969 training season still in the F-100Ds, but in the spring of 1969, received the first of the new McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom IIs and began the team’s conversion.
The F-4’s conversion was the most extensive in the team’s history. Among several other modifications, the paint scheme changed due to the variations in chemicals, which allows paint used on the F-4 to resist heat and friction at Mach II speeds. As a result, the white paint base was developed and remains a part of today’s Thunderbird aircraft design.
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 did demonstrate the capabilities of a prominent Air Force aircraft.
Remaining true to its character to showcase 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. Due to the conversion to the new aircraft, there were no official shows flown in 1982. The team flew the F-16 during the 1983 show season; making it the team’s ninth aircraft and once 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 Thunderbirds appeared on television in 2003 at the start of the Coca-Cola 600 while celebrating their 50th anniversary.
Recent years have brought the team to its first performances in Europe and Asia.
The 60th Air Mobility Wing at Travis Air Force Base contributed to this report.