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Celebrating 50 Plus years of Air Show Excellence

    This photo gallery page is dedicated to the U S Air Force Thunderbirds.  While I am fond of all military demonstration teams the Thunderbirds have a special place in my heart.  Bonnie and I have seen them perform dozens of times over the past 30 years or so and each time is like the fist time for us.  But before we get started with the photos, please allow me a brief side note. 


     In 2006 the macho world of high speed military flight demonstrations changed forever as Air Force Thunderbirds became the first United States military flight demonstration team to perform their air shows with a female pilot.  

     Maj. Nicole Malachowski, Thunderbird 3, is now (2007) in her second season with the Air Force Air Thunderbirds.  She joined the Air Force in 1996 and has more than 1600 hours of flight time, 1000 of which while flying the F-15 Eagle.  She is an F-15E instructor pilot and makes her home in Las Vegas, Nevada.

     Starting with the 2006 air show season, Malachowski has flown the No. 3 jet as the Right Wing pilot in the Thunderbird Diamond F-16 formation.  




          In June of 2006 the Thunderbirds announced their officer selections for the upcoming year.   Major Samantha Weeks, 31 was named as Thunderbird 6.

Major Weeks, is now in her first season with the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron.  She flies the No. 6 jet as the Opposing Solo pilot.

Maj. Weeks entered the Air Force in May 1997, from the U.S. Air Force Academy.   Before her assignment to the team Maj. Weeks served as a flight commander and instructor pilot with the 12th Fighter Squadron, at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska.  She has logged more than 1,500 hours as an Air Force pilot, with approximately 1,100 hours in the F-15 C/D.




In addition to the two flying Thunderbird officers, the 2007 Air Force team also includes Executive Officer, Captain Amy Glisson, Thunderbird 10, and Public Affairs Officer, Captain Elizabeth Kreft, Thunderbird 12.  

Congratulations to the Thunderbirds for recognizing that high quality performance has no gender.   And congratulations too, to the United States Air Force for leading the way, so that others may surely follow.  More info about all of the Thunderbird Officers and the entire team can be found by clicking the Thunderbird URL on the LINKS page. 



    For much of the time that Bonnie and I have been going to Thunderbird air shows our relationship with the team was similar to any other air show fan.  But that all changed starting in September of 2002.

    In preparation for a series of articles I was writing in celebration of the Thunderbird's 50th Anniversary, during the 2002 air show season I received special permission to spend some time with the members of the Thunderbird's team.  As a result, I got to see the team and their Red, White and Blue F-16s up close.  As a result, I also got to know some of the members on a more personal basis. 

     In 2003, four articles were written based on the research I did the year previous.  After they were published, I sent several copies of each article to the team and thanked them for all their help.  Well, a few months passed and then one day, the mail brought a letter from the Thunderbirds headquarters. 

     The Thunderbirds Commanding Officer,  Lt. Col. Richard G. McSpadden, Jr. sent me a very nice thank you note and with it was an invitation for Bonnie and I to attend the Thunderbird's 50th Anniversary celebrations.  The festivities were scheduled for November 2003 at the Thunderbird's home base, Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas, Nevada .  Needless to say, Bonnie and I were thrilled and made plans to attend right away. 

     Now, if you are an air show nut or better yet, if you are a Thunderbirds air show fan like we are, this was a once in a lifetime dream come true.   For 8 days, the team treated Bonnie and I as if we were Alumni.  There were many highlights of our visit, including getting to meet some of the 1400 former Thunderbirds who attended a gala banquet at Caesar's Palace. 


      The week long activities to celebrate the Thunderbird's 50th anniversary began with several public air shows on Saturday and Sunday.  These shows were open house events which are normally staged sometime in November of each year to welcome home the team as they end their season. 

     Our invitation also included VIP treatment for the public shows too.  So we arrived the week before to get familiar with the area.  It doesn't get much better than this if you're a Thunderbird's fan.  Following those two public shows, the Alumni events began.   



      All but the last photo below are from our visit to Nellis AFB in November of 2003 for the Thunderbird's 50th Anniversary Celebration.




     As soon as you arrive at the Nellis Air Force Base front gate, you know that you are about to enter Thunderbird Country. 


     This is the Thunderbird sculpture that adorns the main entrance to Nellis Air Force Base.  The photo doesn't do justice to the size of this piece.  Each of the four F-16s is perhaps 6 feet long and the entire structure is about 20 feet high.








     On Wednesday of Alumni week, Bonnie and I got a tour of the Thunderbird building and maintenance facility.

     This is where it all begins  Since 1956, 4445 Tyndall Avenue has been the home of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds. 

     Once inside the front door, the Thunderbird museum is on the ground floor with the offices above. 

     At the back of the building is the Squadron's maintenance facility and aircraft hanger.   





Below is a rare look at the inside of the Thunderbirds maintenance hanger.  Needless to say, the place is spotless.  The floor is a highly polished, scuff-free while vinyl.  In the center of the hanger, inlaid into the floor is a replica of the Thunderbird patch.  The hanger is so clean that you could literally eat off the floor if you had to.  Even though I had Sneakers on, I still walked lightly so as not to leave any marks.

Above the Thunderbird's Number One aircraft poses for my camera.  If you look closely by the F-16's rear wheel, you'll see a member of the team under the plane and hard at work.  This is proof positive that no matter what, the maintenance work never stops. 



     The private air show was held on Friday afternoon.  Here are the five Thunderbird pilots just before they began the ground ceremony to start the Alumni air show.

     A word about this photograph.  Normally, there are six Thunderbird pilots and planes who fly demonstrations with the team. 

     This photo was taken in November of 2003.  Just two months prior, the Thunderbirds suffered an aircraft accident at an air show in Idaho. 

   On September 15th 2003, Capt Chris R. Stricklin in his first year with the Thunderbirds, safely ejected from Thunderbird Six while 85,000 air show fans looked on at Mountain Home AFB, near Boise, Idaho.

     Normally, at the start of each Thunderbird air show, the number 6 aircraft takes off last.  Once airborne, the jet climbs nearly straight up to an altitude of at least 2500 feet Above Ground Level (AGL).  Then, while flying inverted, the pilot loops back towards the ground and safely completes a "Split S" maneuver.  The problem was, Stricklin apparently never reset his altimeter to the proper setting for Mountain Home's elevation prior to launch.   As a result, when his altimeter read 2500 feet AGL, his real altitude was only 1650 feet Above Ground Level. 

     Heading straight down without enough height above ground to safely complete the loop maneuver, Stricklin ejected only 8 tenths of one second and 140 feet prior to crashing the 20.4 million dollar F-16.  Needless to say, this was a terrible moment for the team and everyone involved.  The Thunderbird's Mountain Home air show which had just begun, was cancelled and the entire team was grounded for a short time after the accident.

     Stricklin only suffered minor injuries while ejecting out of the aircraft and was naturally grounded along with the rest of the team pending a full investigation.  He was later removed from the team.  Since it was so close to the end of the air show season, the team decided to continue flying the remaining shows with only five pilots and aircraft.  The 2004 season was flown with all six planes.

     By the time Bonnie and I arrived at the team's headquarters in November, Stricklin's name had been removed from the official roster and naturally no one officially mentioned the crash.  You could tell however, that it was still in the back of everyone's mind.   Stricklin made a simple mistake, that probably cost him his air force career and nearly his life.  As a result of the accident investigation, new checklist procedures were instituted by the team to help insure that a mistake like this one does not happen again. 

    The bottom line is, pilots are human and accidents do happen.  Planes can be replaced and luckily, this time no one was killed or severely injured.   Following a formal review and with new safety procedures in place, the team flew on to complete the rest of their scheduled air shows.



Below, two members of the ground crew and Commanding Officer Lt. Col. McSpadden ready the aircraft for his last air show as a Thunderbird pilot.


With the Nevada hills in the background, Thunderbird One is ready to roll.



I think that the next few photos speak for themselves. 











Below is probably my all time favorite Thunderbird photograph.  I like this photo for lots of reasons.  Not the least of which is, that I think it was captured really well.  Everything came together, exposure, framing, sky conditions and luck.

 Nellis was the first time I shot a complete air show with a Digital SLR.  I'm not sure if I could have done the same kind of job with my old film cameras.  With Digital, there are fewer surprises.  What you see in the field is largely what you get later. 








      Another thing I like about the above shot, is that it showcases Air Force precision flying at its best.

     When you look at a hi resolution crop of this photo you get a brief glimpse of what it must be like to be a Thunderbird pilot. 

     If you study the expanded frames, you'll notice that only Commander McSpadden, flying the top jet, is looking straight ahead.  All of the other pilots are constantly checking out their positions relative to his and the plane above them. 

     McSpadden is the team leader and its his job to make sure the team is positioned correctly for every move.  That's a huge responsibility.   The tolerances are very tight when aircraft are flying along as close as 36 inches apart, at a speed of three or four hundred miles per hour! 

     Each pilot follows the man above him.  Any problems with aircraft alignment ripples down the line and affects the rest of the team.  Having nerves of steel and total faith in your fellow pilots probably helps. 



Next, are a couple of cool shots of the Thunderbird Diamond flying near the hills which are South of Nellis Air Force Base.  Those peaks are about five miles from the runway. 


Both shots were taken only a second or two apart using a Canon 10d and a Canon 100-400 mm lens with Image Stabilization. 



At air shows you have to work rather quickly and without a tripod.   This is when Image Stabilization really shines.  Even with a focal length of about 640 mm the details of the above photo are still sharp.  Just how sharp can be seen in the next image.   

Below is an enlargement of the Thunderbird Diamond formation from the photo above.



Next is Thunderbird 5 flying in the same area. 

Notice how the exhaust trail distorts the image behind the aircraft. 




The two photos below were shot on two different days at Nellis.  They sort of compliment each other.




As the Diamond formation travels across the sky at a rate of speed which is slow enough for landing, Thunderbird Five can be seen diving down from a high altitude and closing in at just under the Mach 1.  The object is for number 5 to overtake the rest of the team as they reach Show Center.



The next three photos were not shot on the same day but they are all part of the same

"Bomb Burst to Crossover" maneuver.

The photo below is tilted from the normal vertical position.  It shows smoke trails from all five Thunderbird jets as they brake apart and perform their famous Thunderbird Bomb Burst.  At the start of the maneuver four of the planes are flying horizontally and then go vertical together.  At about eight to nine thousand feet, the Commander calls for the team to break apart with each Thunderbird heading off in a different compass direction.  Within seconds, Thunderbird five follows the rest of the team and flies straight up through the middle of their smoke trail. 


As Thunderbird Five heads skyward he performs a series of nine Aileron rolls before topping out around fifteen thousand feet AGL.


As the four original F-16s head out in four different directions, they constantly listen to Thunderbird One as he calls out for the team to dive down and then loop back towards their point of origin.  As each plane approaches the starting point, they have a combined closing speed of nearly 1000 miles per hour.   The four aircraft arrive just to the right of show center only fee apart from each other.  This is when practice makes perfect. 



    Bonnie took this picture of "Our Hero" in action.  

     Here I am shooting my then brand new Canon 10d with a 100 - 400 mm image stabilized lens that I borrowed from my friend Diana Anderson. 

    With the 10d's - 1.6 lens correction factor, this combination gave me an effective focal length range of between 160 and 640 mm! 

     In three days of air show shooting at Nellis, I managed to take over 900 air show photos.  Of those, I only printed about 350 frames.  And of those "keepers", I got about a dozen really nice action images. 






     One of the great things about attending the 50th Anniversary Alumni festivities, was getting to meet so many Thunderbirds from the past and present.


     Here is the 50th Anniversary Commander, Lt. Col. Richard G. McSpadden Jr. (Left) with the very first Thunderbird Commander from 1953, retired Major General Richard Catledge. 


     While preparing my articles about the team I had spoken via telephone with General Catledge, who now lives in Florida.  I didn't know at the time, that a year or so later, I would actually get to meet the man who started it all. 





     Just 1800 men and women have been lucky enough to become Thunderbirds since the team's inception in 1953.  As you can imagine, after 50 years the Thunderbird Alumni now live all over the world.  Nonetheless, nearly 1400 men and women returned to Los Vegas in 2003, to take part in the 50th anniversary celebration. 

     Shown on here are some of the most senior members of the team.  I don't know everyone in this photo but the two most predominant people in the frame are (L) former Major Ralph (Hoot) Gibson Commander 1961-63 and (R) a member of the first Thunderbird team, Captain Buck Patillo 1953-54.




  Finally, This shot was one of the last photos I ever took of the Thunderbirds with a film camera.  It was taken at Willow Grove - Naval Air Station in Pennsylvania in September of 2002 while I was researching the team for my articles.  I like the blur. 

     The shot was taken with a 400 mm lens on "Media Day" as the team was beginning their practice session.  I was lucky enough to be tagging along with one of the Thunderbird's two full time photographers, Staff Sgt. Christopher Gish.  Chris always had his camera at the ready to take a few good frames.  So, while everyone else was on the opposite side of the runway, looking west and shooting into the setting sun, Chris scoped out the situation and said, "Let's shoot from the other side of the field."  Amazingly, we just walked out to a grassy area near the edge of the runway and set up shop.  No bells went off, no guards came and took us away.  We just stood there taking photos.  As a result, the setting Sun was at our backs instead of low in the sky straight ahead.  It made for some great photos and an experience I'll always remember.  Thanks Chris. 


   Links to more Thunderbird Features  


     The 2007  Thunderbirds Air Show Schedule   


    The  McGuire Air Force Base 2007 Air Show   


    The  Atlantic City  2007  Air  Show   

Thunderbirds Air Force Museum  Article part #1 Thunderbirds Air Force Museum  Article part #2  -  

Thunderbirds Radio World  Article  -  Thunderbirds Popular Communications Article   -  

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