Late May is the start of airshow season, and nothing says air show like an aerial demonstration team. Fancy jet displays have become almost as synonymous with the manliness that is summer as beer brats on the grill, classic cars at the Rosie’s Diner parking lot and letting your expanding gut hang loose. The Air Force Thunderbirds and their Navy Blue Angels brethren are the go-to people for filling the skies with raw power, both at home and abroad. Aerial demonstration teams have spread all over the globe and have for decades been the centerpieces of seasonal mass-outdoor gatherings.

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What is an Aerial Demonstration Team?

A Japanese Self-Defense Air Force Blue Impulse T-4 trainer makes a low pass, from Wikipedia Public Domain

Aerial demonstration teams are pretty self-explanatory - they show off fancy aerobatic maneuvers in fancy jets for the public (and foreign nations) to see. The aerobatics themselves don’t have much value in combat, especially in the age of beyond-visual range missiles (and in fact certain maneuvers only serve to slow the plane down for an easy lock-on) but they do show off the skill and proficiency of the best pilots a nation’s air force has to offer. This makes the taxpayer take notice of their defense investment - and other nations of who will knock on their door if certain governments or despots are into sabre-rattling. Aerial demonstration teams have become an important and almost mandatory diplomatic tool in their own right - they travel to other countries as goodwill ambassadors and entertainers while simultaneously saying “don’t you dare start something because we will literally shoot you down before you can blink.” Multiple demonstration teams gathering together in one place also ends up being a mini-exercise, necessitating logistical and support collaboration (and you can’t have enough cooperative training in that). And of course a little friendly rivalry and competition doesn’t hurt either.

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Of course, demonstration teams are also worth domestic investment in the same way the Navy dumped money into the production of Top Gun - it’s a really cool and awesome-looking recruiting tool. You can also argue the entertainment factor alone is a valuable public service, attracting thousands of people to vendor hotspots and providing a boost to the local economy.

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The Brazilian Air Force Esquadrilha da Fumaça flies in formation with Embraer Tucano trainers. Image by Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom used under Creative Commons license.

Demonstration teams also provide a relative measure of a nation’s air projection capability. Bigger nations like the US and Russia are going to send their teams around in F-16 and F/A-18 supersonic multi-role fighters and Su-27 Flanker air superiority fighters. Poorer nations have to make do with jet or propeller trainers, or even commercially available aircraft like the Extra EA-300. The Thunderbirds and Blue Angels didn’t always fly the latest and greatest, but at least tried to find a platform that both represented the service and fit their unique requirements. Neither were they always successful with that.

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The History of the Thunderbirds

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The Thunderbirds were formally established on May 25, 1953, making this Memorial Day the 62nd anniversary of the team’s existence. They started out in the F-84 Thunderjet (pictured above), not quite the hottest thing in the inventory but again broadly representative of the service and befitting the team’s requirements. They later switched to the swept-wing F-84F Thunderstreak variant. The performance of both aircraft is more or less similar to that of modern jet trainers and even some high-end turboprops like the Super Tucano and PC-21 - remember, this is just after the Korean War and the -84s worked very well for public demonstration.

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If you thought the F-84s were a bit pedestrian even for the time, you didn’t have long to wait - just three years later they switched to the F-100 Super Sabre, which was the latest and greatest thing the Air Force had to offer at the time. It was the first fighter in the inventory capable of supersonic speeds in level flight - and, oh yeah, that was something the Thunderbirds actually did (permission-dependent) until the no-fun-allowed Federal Aviation Administration put a stop to it (or so claims the usual bastion of infallible information). Either way, having the windows of your food truck get blown out from a low-speed pass kind of sucks the fun out.

The demands of the airshow circuit put a great strain on the F-100’s airframe, and it was a tricky beast to fly as it pushed the envelope as much as then-current aerospace engineering would allow. Just as the F-84s before, it was time to upgrade to something...well, let’s just say someone in that decision-making position made a really bizarre choice.

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The Thunderbirds “upgraded” to the F-105 Thunderchief. Why? I don’t know. Why was it such a big deal? The F-84 and F-100 before were your general classic fighter planes - just like the ones from the storied epics of WWII, just with jet engines and in the latter case able to break the speed of sound. Both had extremely limited radars at best with ranges not much greater than what you’d find on a Hyundai showroom (and that’s not much of an exaggeration either) - they were primary day fighters relying on the stick skills of the brain in the cockpit to line up guns against the enemy. The F-105 “Thud” couldn’t be any more different. Sure, it had a big powerful engine, but more to lift as much bombload as a B-17 than to duke it out with light and nimble MiGs. And you wouldn’t tell from its fighter jet proportions and single-seat configuration but it’s literally as big as a B-17, too. In fact early models had an internal bomb bay specifically for lobbing nukes at air defense sites across the Iron Curtain, which was considered its primary mission. Needless to say it was really a bomber despite what that “F” in “F-105” wants to tell you.

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So you can imagine what kind of fun time the Thunderbirds had with this as their ride. As it turned out, it wasn’t a very long ride - after a very short stint and the crash of a Thud from stressed-induced structural failure (gee how shocking) resulting in the death of its pilot, they went back to their Super Sabres until something more suitable can be found.

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At the height of the Vietnam Era the Thunderbirds flew the plane that would define that era for the Air Force - the F-4 Phantom II. This was also the only time they shared a common type with the Blue Angels. The Phantom isn’t exactly a Miata with jets either, but it was better than the Thunderchief and the Thunderbird pilots were all too familiar with what was the premiere tactical aircraft of all three flying military branches. In a lot of ways it was a lot like the muscle cars that also dominated that era - fast, loud and a gas guzzler. Yes, when the Malaise Era hit hard, even the Thunderbirds had to downsize.

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Fortunately they didn’t have to be stuck with grenade-engine Vegas or firebomb Pintos. The T-38 Talon was a hot little thing that in many ways is a lot like a jet Miata. Yes, it was an unarmed trainer. No, it wasn’t exactly something that could go toe-to-toe with serious fighters the same way an F-4 Phantom II can. But in comparison it validated the “add lightness” mantra and boy could it fly like nothing else. The Air Force and Navy used the single-seat armed variant, the F-5 Freedom Fighter/Tiger II to simulate tiny MiGs and they routinely flew circles around front-line F-4s.

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Like the aircraft that came before, the T-38s simply wore out under the heavy show schedule year in and year out. The fatal crash of one in 1982 due to wear issues highlighted the need for replacement airframes, and the Thunderbirds were declared ready to go with the USAF’s latest and greatest toy at the time, the F-16 Fighting Falcon. The Thunderbirds have been flying with them ever since, swapping out worn-out birds with low-time ones. They will likely keep flying the Falcons until the only ones left in the boneyards are worn-out deathtraps no longer useful for anything but literal target practice, at which point the Thunderbirds will likely have F-35s available - again, representing the primary (in fact close to only) tactical aircraft operating at that time.