United States Air Force Thunderbirds

USAF Thunderbirds at Joint Base Andrews – © David H. Enzel, 2022

On September 17, 2022, I saw the awe-inspiring “Thunderbirds” air demonstration squadron of the United States Air Force (USAF) perform at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, the home of Air Force One. The Thunderbirds squadron was was created in 1953 and is based in Nevada.

The USAF Thunderbirds are the third-oldest formal flying aerobatic team (under the same name) in the world, after the French Air Force Patrouille de France formed in 1931 and the United States Navy Blue Angels formed in 1946.

The Thunderbirds Squadron tours the United States and beyond performing aerobatic formation and solo flying in pristine, specially marked aircraft.

The Thunderbirds have performed at over 4,000 airshows worldwide, accumulating millions of miles in hundreds of different airframes over the course of their more than fifty-four years of service. Flying high-performance fighter jets is dangerous. And when flying in extremely close formation, the danger is compounded.

In total, twenty-one Thunderbirds pilots have been killed in the team’s history. Three fatal crashes have occurred during air shows, two of them in jets.

The Thunderbirds perform aerial demonstrations in the F-16C Fighting Falcon. Over 4,600 aircraft have been built since production was approved in 1976. Although no longer being purchased by the U.S. Air Force, improved versions are being built for export customers.

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