The team, made up of eight pilots (six for demonstration) was originally formed to support Air Force recruitment programs and build American’s confidence in the Air Force.
The team moved to Nellis Air Force Base in 1956 from Luke Air Force Base. In 1983, the Thunderbirds began using their iconic F-16A. The Thunderbirds fly F-16Cs today after switching in 1992.
Other aircraft previously flown by the squadron include the F-84G Thunderjet, the F-84 Thunderstreak and the Air Force’s first supersonic fighter, the F-100 Super Sabre, to name a few.
The Thunderbirds’ schedule consists of about 75 shows a year, and the squadron has performed over 4,000 shows in its 69-year history. Over 300 million people have attended shows internationally.
The Air Force Thunderbirds flying during a joint practice with the Blue Angels at Nellis Air Force Base on Oct. 7, 1997. (John Gurzinski, Las Vegas Review-Journal/TNS)
The Blue Angels flying during a joint practice with the Air Force Thunderbirds on Oct. 7, 1997, at Nellis Air Force Base. (John Gurzinski, Las Vegas Review-Journal/TNS)
The Blue Angels and the Air Force Thunderbirds at a joint practice at Nellis Air Force Base on Oct. 7, 1997. (John Gurzinski, Las Vegas Review-Journal/TNS)
Nellis Air Force Base on Sept. 22, 1997, where pilots and support staff were observing a 24-hour stand-down, or the cancellation of all training flights, because of six military aircraft crashes in seven days. All bases around the nation with Air Combat Commands were observing the stand-down. Personnel spent the day reviewing safety protocols aimed at preventing accidents. At Nellis is the 57th Air Combat Command, which includes the USAF Weapons School, the service's largest helicopter rescue squadron, and the USAF Thunderbirds Air Demonstration Squadron. (Jim Laurie, Las Vegas Review-Journal/TNS)
The crash site of an Air Force Thunderbird F-16C jet on Feb. 14, 1994. Capt. Thomas H. Lewis III, who was training for his first season with the Thunderbirds U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, suffered a broken leg and other injuries. Witnesses said Lewis, 32, apparently couldn't bring the jet out of a maneuver, possibly losing power during a steep climb. (Jim Laurie, Las Vegas Review-Journal/TNS)
The last practice session for the Air Force Thunderbirds demonstration team before they take their show on the road for their 41st season. There were about 300 friends and family members invited to the show at Nellis Air Force Base on March 12, 1994. (Ralph Fountain, Las Vegas Review-Journal/TNS)
The Thunderbirds practice at the end of their 40th year on Nov. 19, 1997. On Monday, Nov. 22, the Thunderbirds began their 1994 season with three new F-15 pilots. (Gary Thompson, Las Vegas Review-Journal/TNS)
A change of command ceremony at Nellis Air Force Base on June 3, 1981. General Jack Gregory became the eighth commander of Nellis when he took over command of the Tactical Fighter Weapons Center from General Robert Kelley who becomes superintendent of the Air Force Academy. Other names include commander of the Tactical Air Command General W.L. Greech. The ceremony featured the Air Force Thunderbirds. (Keith Farrar, Las Vegas Review-Journal/TNS)
Thunderbird F-16 jets and officers in uniform on Nellis Air Force Base at the biennial Nellis Air Show. The show had more than 130,000 in attendance, one of the largest crowds in the base's history on May 3, 1987. (Gary Thompson, Las Vegas Review-Journal/TNS)
Engineers work at Nellis Air Force Base on Jan. 24, 1980. (Scott Henry, Las Vegas Review-Journal/AP)
About 3.5 billion people watched the Thunderbirds perform at the 1996 Centennial Olympics opening ceremonies in Atlanta, according to the U.S. Air Force website.
Twenty-one pilots have been killed in the squadron’s history, but only three crashes have occurred during shows. In 1982, four planes crashed nose first at the Indian Springs Air Force Auxiliary Field in an accident known as the Diamond Crash. The pilots were training for an air show when the planes failed to turn up from a loop soon enough to avoid impact. All four pilots involved in the training died.
The aircrafts fly as close as 18 inches from each other during some of their most complicated maneuvers, and can fly at speeds over 1,000 mph, according to the U.S. Air Force.
The Thunderbirds’ season runs from mid-March to late October/early November.