Rolling Thunder

Thunderbirds celebrate 60 years of representing the Air Force

Story by Tech. Sgt. Matthew Bates

The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds taxi back after a successful air show demonstration at Holloman Air Force Base.

The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds taxi back after a successful air show demonstration at Holloman Air Force Base. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Justin D. Pyle)

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Donning his distinctive red flight helmet, Lt. Col. Greg Moseley can’t help but feel proud. He’s a fighter pilot in the Air Force, he’s flown the F-15 Eagle and the F-22 Raptor, and his job is the envy of kids everywhere.

All of this makes Moseley happy, but what he’s most proud of is the large patch he wears every day. Its red, white and blue colors aren’t flashy, and the emblem of a large bird isn’t much to look at, but it’s what the patch signifies that Moseley most appreciates.

It marks him as an ambassador, an entertainer, a professional and a recruiter. Mostly, though, it signifies he’s part of one of the world’s premier aerial demonstration teams.

It marks him as a U.S. Air Force Thunderbird.

He’s not just any Thunderbird, either; he’s Thunderbird 1, the team’s lead pilot and commander.

“It’s still amazing to think I’m part of this team,” he said. “Every time I put on this uniform it still makes me very proud.”
The colonel took command during the 2012 performance season and spent the year performing in more than 60 shows at 25 different locations, including two performances in Canada.

At each show, the colonel and his team put on a display of excellence and daring, as the Thunderbirds expertly pilot their F-16 Fighting Falcons through a series of aerial maneuvers. Crowds gasp, people cheer, and many spectators leave inspired. It’s a scene that’s been played over and over at air shows for the past 60 years.

“Seeing people’s reactions to our performances is really special,” Moseley said. “And it’s a job like nothing else in the Air Force.”

Capt. Blaine Jones awaits to shut down after returning from a practice show at Lakeland, Fla. Jones is the Thunderbird 6, Opposing Solo pilot.

Capt. Blaine Jones awaits to shut down after returning from a practice show at Lakeland, Fla. Jones is the Thunderbird 6, Opposing Solo pilot. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Larry E. Reid Jr.)

As cool as the performances are, there are some who question their necessity. Detractors say the Thunderbirds cost too much, use up valuable resources and take good pilots and support personnel out of the operational Air Force. Add to this the fact that the nation is facing economic problems, defense budget cuts are looming, and these voices are getting louder.

Rightly so, says Moseley.

“We understand where these statements are coming from,” he said. “If you don’t understand the mission of the Thunderbirds, then you’re bound to question the need for it.”

But, he added, the Thunderbirds do provide some valuable benefits to the Air Force.

The largest of which is recruiting. One of the Thunderbirds’ main missions is to help tell the Air Force story to people across the United States and around the world. Performing their aerial demonstrations at air shows and other events allows the Thunderbirds to do just that.

“Every time we perform, there could be a kid out there who says, ‘I want to join the Air Force when I grow up,’ all because he or she saw one of our shows.” said Capt. Lucas Buckley, the team’s maintenance officer and Thunderbird 11. “That’s really why we’re out there, to tell people about the Air Force, what we do and how we do it, and, maybe, get some people to think about joining.”

This is also why the team dresses different. Everything about the Thunderbirds, from their distinctive uniforms and super-sized patches to their specially-painted airplanes and equipment, is designed to draw attention.

Tech. Sgt. Joseph Maestre prepares to chock Capt. Nicholas Holmes' aircraft after a training sortie at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. Maestre is the Thunderbird 7 assistant dedicated crew chief, and Holmes is the Thunderbirds Slot pilot.

Tech. Sgt. Joseph Maestre prepares to chock Capt. Nicholas Holmes’ aircraft after a training sortie at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. Maestre is the Thunderbird 7 assistant dedicated crew chief, and Holmes is the Thunderbirds Slot pilot. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Larry E. Reid Jr.)

“We want people to come up to us and talk to us,” Buckley said. “These uniforms are very distinctive and when people see them they know you’re a Thunderbird. Then they want to talk to you, and we get the chance to tell them about all the amazing things the Air Force does – beyond just flying at air shows.”

The Thunderbirds aren’t just about flying around in red, white and blue planes, either. Another of the team’s missions is to represent the men and women of the Air Force to the rest of the world.

“We don’t set the standard; we simply do our best to uphold the standard set by our brothers and sisters in arms,” Moseley said. “It is those Airmen who are serving all over the world, away from friends and family, in some of the roughest environments you can imagine. It is their efforts that go largely unseen. It is their story that deserves to be told, and the Thunderbirds are proud to do it.”

It’s in this role the Thunderbirds earned the nickname, “ambassadors in blue,” and it’s one that resonates loudly within the organization.

“Every time we perform or go in public, we are representing the Air Force and its professional men and women,” said Maj. Tyler Ellison, the team’s operations officer and Thunderbird 7. “It’s not like, ‘Look at us, we’re so amazing,’ but more like I hope we’re doing our best to do our fellow Airmen justice.”
Ironically, it’s the Thunderbirds’ missions that actually contribute to some people looking at the team negatively: There are simply no hard numbers.

“What we do for the Air Force is hard to quantify,” Moseley said. “We can’t say we helped recruit this many people, or kept this many people from getting out of the Air Force, because there’s no way to track that sort of thing.”

This doesn’t mean the Thunderbirds aren’t doing their job; it just means they have to work hard at doing it to the best of their ability.

The Air Force Thunderbirds fly over the Las Vegas Motor Speedway during the Shelby 427 NASCAR Sprint Cup race.

The Air Force Thunderbirds fly over the Las Vegas Motor Speedway during the Shelby 427 NASCAR Sprint Cup race. Located at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., the Thunderbirds will began their 2014 air demonstration season in February and will perform 66 shows throughout the United States. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Larry E. Reid Jr.)

“The better we are, the better we look. And the better we look, the more people want to come out and see us,” said Chief Master Sgt. Michael Martinez, the team’s chief enlisted manager. “And the more people come out to see us, the more people we can potentially recruit or inspire through our performances.”

Fighting for their existence is nothing new to the Thunderbirds. Throughout its 60-year history, the team has overcome tragedy, budget concerns and equipment scandals – all of which threatened to put an end to the demonstration team.

The team was most in jeopardy in 1982, when, after several years of plane crashes and pilot fatalities, one accident nearly grounded the Thunderbirds for good. In January of that year, four Thunderbird pilots were killed when their T-38 Talons crashed while performing a training flight at Indian Springs, Nev. An investigation was started and a Congressional committee wanted to end the team. Then, Gen. Wilbur Creech, a former Thunderbird pilot himself, proposed a different idea: Keep the team, but change planes and implement new safety measures.

Congress listened. The Thunderbirds transitioned to the F-16, and have not suffered a fatality since.
“He [General Creech] truly advocated keeping the team intact and active after many people wanted to disband it in the early ‘80s,” said Lt. Col. Robert Skelton, a former Thunderbird. “While much of what General Creech advocated for the team has just become how we do business, I think the greatest take-away is to truly seek excellence in everything. He truly embodied that and sought to ensure all Airmen did as well.”

Excellence is what the Thunderbirds strive for every day, too. And, in some cases, the team is exceeding this goal.

“In more than 60 years the Thunderbirds have never cancelled an air show due to maintenance difficulties,” said Tech. Sgt. Richard Connell, the team’s assistant aircraft section chief. “The foundation that has been laid by those that have come before us inspires our desire to strive for team excellence. Our diverse workforce consisting of more than 25 career fields coupled with experienced maintainers and a strict system of checks and balances allows us to continue this great legacy that we have been entrusted to uphold.”

Capt. Blaine Jones takes off during the Joint Base Lewis-McChord Air Expo in Washington. Jones is the Thunderbird 6, Opposing Solo pilot.

Capt. Blaine Jones takes off during the Joint Base Lewis-McChord Air Expo in Washington. Jones is the Thunderbird 6, Opposing Solo pilot.(U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Larry E. Reid Jr.)

Never missing a performance due to maintenance is “something we pride ourselves in, because it speaks to the professionalism and dedication of the Airmen here,” said Tech. Sgt. Paul DeGrechie, the team’s assistant aircraft section chief.

This professionalism and dedication is tested, too. Team members spend some 180 days TDY during a typical performance season, working long hours as they deploy to, perform at and re-deploy back from an average of 60 event locations each year.

“From the outside, people look at the Thunderbirds and see this glitzy, glamorous job,” Buckley said. “But once you get here and start doing the mission, you quickly realize this is not what you expected.”

Not that any of the Thunderbirds are complaining. Long hours, time away from family and living out of a suitcase are small sacrifices compared to the job’s benefits.

“We get to represent the Air Force, perform an amazing mission and inspire people of all ages,” Ellison said. “So after this, I’m going to look back and hold my head high. I mean, there are not many people who can say they’ve been a Thunderbird. But I can.”

So can Moseley. It says so on the red, white and blue emblem of a large bird on his chest. So does the similarly-colored F-16 he climbs into before he puts on his red flight helmet.

More impressively, though, it says so when his name is announced over the loudspeaker as his brightly-colored jet streaks across the sky and the crowd gasps, people cheer, and a little kid is inspired.


Historic Thunderbird Photo Gallery

By the spring of 1955, the Thunderbirds received its first assigned support aircraft - the C-119 Flying Boxcar

By the spring of 1955, the Thunderbirds received its first assigned support aircraft – the C-119 Flying Boxcar.



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2 thoughts on “Rolling Thunder

  1. I remember my first Thunderbirds show, it was at Nellis Air Fforce base in Nevada. This was in 1969. my brother who is a Viet nam vet was stationed there before shipping out to Nam. they left me with a lasting impression. It was awesome. It was a sight i will never forget
    I was only 16 years old. Who would of thought I’d be working for Pratt and Whitney back then. Back then they would allow you on the airbase. I got to see them upfront and personal.