Jim is one of those millions of people who have witnessed a Thunderbird aerial
demonstration since the team was formed in 1953. He got to watch them when he
was in the Air National Guard in Springfield, IL back in the 1980s (when he moved to Billings, MT
he served in the Army National Guard).
Although I have watched
various air shows live
and on TV before, I've never seen in person what is surely the world's best
aerial team in action until this week: the Thunderbirds.
It's been a long while since Jim saw the group perform; he was just
as excited as I was to see them. They are still using F-16s in their
demonstrations but the pilots are probably different than the ones who flew
when Jim saw them over twenty years ago! Ya think?
The Thunderbirds' new logo for 2010
Per the website and graduation program, "The team is comprised of
selected pilots assigned to the Air Combat Command and demonstrates the
coordination, discipline, and flying ability that combat-capable pilots require
to fulfill their vital role in our nation's defense." The
welcome page states that the
Thunderbirds' goal is for each person who sees the team
in the air or on the ground to "be captivated and overwhelmed with a powerful
sense of pride in America and its Air Force."
In my case, they succeeded. It was a thrill to see them practice yesterday
and present their air show at the conclusion of the cadet graduation at the Air
Force Academy in Colorado Springs today.
Several A-16s soar upward after leaving
a heart-shaped smoke pattern in the sky during practice on Tuesday.
I was in for more of a treat than I imagined. The Thunderbirds are at once
daring yet graceful, totally captivating to watch. Each time they (rapidly) flew out of sight to
regroup, we turned our heads in every direction to figure out where they'd be
coming from the next time. They flew in so fast, they often surprised us. It's
a wonder I was able to get as many pictures of them as I did.
couldn't get enough of the Thunderbirds. Both days I was disappointed when the show ended.
WADDYA MEAN, WE HAVE TO LEAVE??
One of the first things we were told when we checked into the FamCamp at the
academy on Sunday was that we'd have to vacate the campground and nearby
roads for several hours on Monday and Wednesday for sure, and possibly
also on Tuesday.
Why? It's a safety issue, Federal Aviation Administration regulations -- the
roads and areas highlighted
on the map we were given were
off-limits to all personnel during the Thunderbird practice session(s) and
graduation performance. Most of the base was open. We could stay on base
as long as we weren't in the zone that was within 1,500 feet of one of the aircraft as
they flew over.
Six Thunderbirds flying low over the
Academy grounds on Tuesday
were clearly visible to traffic on I-25.
I just shook my head when I read on the Academy website and in the Academy Spirit newspaper,
"The general public is reminded not to stop along Interstate 25 to watch the
performances." News stations also broadcast that warning.
I could imagine both locals and totally clueless travelers passing through
Colorado Springs screeching to a halt along the freeway when they suddenly saw the
Thunderbirds in the air! Yikes.
HERE THEY COME!
On Sunday the Thunderbirds flew from Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, where
they are stationed with the 57th Wing, to Peterson Air Force Base in
southeastern Colorado Springs. Before landing they conducted aerial
surveys of the Air Force Academy. We heard various aircraft flying over the
campground after we arrived that day but
don't know if they were the Thunderbirds' A-16s.
A literal birds'-eye view of six of the aircraft during
the practice session on Tuesday
No one had to leave the campground that day or when the aerial team flew
over Falcon Stadium at 8AM on Monday to rehearse their hat toss flyover. We
definitely heard them that time! They were low and noisy -- not sure why we
didn't have to vacate the premises then.
Their first aerial performance practice was scheduled for early Monday
afternoon but folks in the campground were told to leave by 11AM. We drove
around the academy checking out several overlooks that were recommended as good
viewing points and
settled on the parking area above a slope near the mini-mall. We had to get our
mail at the post office there anyway so we just hung around.
We love you, too! Heart-shaped smoke
pattern during Tuesday's practice.
Well, we sat for over an hour and nothing happened. So did some other
people. About 2PM we called the
campground office and discovered that the practice was cancelled due to high
winds. We had wasted some time but determined that was a decent spot to sit
again on Tuesday, the second and last chance the Thunderbirds had to practice
before today's "real" show at graduation.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
We were treated to a fine show on Tuesday afternoon.
In fact, I enjoyed that practice
run even more than the "real" air show at
graduation. Practice lasted about ten minutes longer (~ 40 vs. 30 minutes) and had more artistry.
It was also easier to track the planes and see the colored smoke trails on Tuesday
because the sky was more clear; the sky was pretty cloudy by the time
the show began today with the hat toss.
We had more company at the parking area on Tuesday. It was sorta like a
tailgate party as folks gathered to watch the practice session.
Our first sighting as the aircraft
approached from the "rear"
Both demonstrations used six F-16s but they were all together
only near the beginning and end of the shows. We usually saw two, three, or
four of the planes at one time, and occasionally five. It's amazing how close they fly and in such
This was the second shot I got on Tuesday when all six planes were still together:
This was our big "canvas" for the show from the high parking area where we
observed the practice session. You can see remnants of previous smoke patterns in
the sky as the aircraft, marked with an arrow, begin another maneuver:
Some of the most hair-raising feats involved two or more planes coming at each
other from opposite directions, often upside down or sideways (!) and just
barely missing each other in front of the audience.
This is a shot I took
during the graduation ceremony air demonstration today, with arrows pointing to the two
planes after they crossed each other:
That got the adrenaline flowing!
Mine, I mean. Theirs was probably flowing, too. That's got to be an exciting
ARTISTRY IN SMOKE
The red, white, and/or blue smoke trails the pilots often left were also
interesting. The show planes are outfitted with smoke tanks; the pilots
release the smoke at just the right times to make various patterns in the sky. There were more of those
patterns in practice than at graduation, probably because the clouds partially
obscured them today.
Here are a couple sequences from their practice run on Tuesday.
I'm showing only half of the photos I got in each sequence.
There are four planes in perfect unison in the first sequence:
And then they leveled off just above the ground (planes are
just below the arrow, obscured in this small photo by the clouds):
Here's the beginning of another heart pattern with three planes going left
and one right:
They did the next sequence with both four and five planes during the practice run on
Tuesday but it wasn't part of the show at graduation.
The first one uses five aircraft but the fifth one isn't easy to see on these
tiny pictures; I marked it with an arrow. It made the short squiggle in the
That must have been for their own amusement!
They flew a similar pattern with four planes. I like the way the smoke trails
with the clouds, sort of like a bouquet:
THE AERIAL DEMONSTRATION AT GRADUATION
The grand finale during cadet graduation today was the traditional hat toss
as the six Thunderbird F-16s flew over noisily. It was like they came out of
nowhere and were suddenly overhead. They are really stealthy!
See the last entry for a really great professional photo of the hat toss
with all six Thunderbirds flying in formation overhead at the beginning of the
aerial demonstration. I'm sure you can find others from this year's ceremony on
the internet. I wasn't prepared and didn't catch the planes on camera
at that moment. The photos in this section are from the graduation show,
The show began and ended with all six planes but most of the
photos I got were of four together.
Right side up . . .
. . . upside down
Near the end of the show all six F-16s came back together for
their grand finale:
And then they were gone into the wild blue yonder.
Not only is the F-16 the aircraft that has been used in the air shows since
1963, it's also the Air Force's front-line fighter. After all the trouble Jim
and I had figuring out when and where they'd come into view next during
practice yesterday and the show today, I can imagine how surprised and
enemy is when one of those things zeroes in at low levels! Hopefully, not all
of our enemies have this technology or expertise.
F-16s are so fast you'd think they travel faster than the speed of sound, but
they don't. They are sub-sonic, not supersonic. The team sometimes used
supersonic F-100 Super Sabres in their demonstrations from the mid-1950s until
the early 1980s, when the FAA banned all supersonic aircraft in air shows after
a nasty crash. More about that below.
An F-16 on display in the Cadet Area at the academy
During the graduation show today there was at least one video cam showing
live pictures of the pilot(s) inside the cockpit. Pictures were projected onto
the large screen at the other end of the stadium as the pilot was doing his maneuvers overhead. Wow.
Jim watched the screen more than I did. I was busier trying to track the
planes in the sky. Bet the pilots had great big ole grins on their faces while they were flying!
You couldn't see their faces on-screen because they wear full-head helmets but
it was cool to see the other planes flying so close outside their windows.
Even though the show today was shorter and simpler than the practice
yesterday, it was interesting to watch some different aerial maneuvers and to
see the crowd reaction. We were in a group of mostly military folks in uniform
(some cadets, some older). To see their pride and awe in the Thunderbird
performance made quite an impression on me.
THAT'S ALL, FOLKS
I mentioned in the last entry that we moved from our assigned seats a little
above field level in Falcon Stadium during the lengthy diploma ceremony to the
nearest concession concourse. It was cooler, less crowded, and closer to
our escape route out the gate we'd entered. We didn't stand in line to get in,
and we weren't about to get behind 30,000 people leaving!
Not that we could leave whenever we wanted . . .
Remember the FAA rules about a certain zone on the academy grounds having to
be cleared of all personnel on Monday and Tuesday during the Thunderbirds team
practice? At graduation, no one could leave the stadium during the air show.
More FAA rules. In fact, no one could leave until all the planes were miles
away and Admiral Mullen and the "official party" left the stadium.
Five planes fly close to the stadium near the end of the
show on graduation day.
That all took a while.
After the air show ended, those of us on the concourse moved toward the
gates but it was orderly and sociable, not like a rowdy sporting event. Some
folks in the stands remained seated or hunted for their graduates. Others
filled in behind us to leave. We all waited for at least twenty minutes until
the "official party" finally left and everyone else could exit. At that point
we'd been in the stadium for almost five hours and we were ready to leave.
Jim and I had a great time at the graduation ceremony. As we walked back to the campground
we talked about all the cool stuff we'd just experienced. Jim had been a little
hesitant to go because of getting sunburned and having to sit so long, but he's
very glad he went. I know I'd do it again in a heartbeat, if given the
We are both proud to be Americans. We don't always agree with the political
decisions being made in Washington, D.C. (regardless of the party making them), but we're sure glad
we were born here and not in some other country.
Participating in events such as this increases our national pride, our
determination to remain as free as possible, and our support/appreciation of the people who
are willing to risk their lives to serve in the military. Thank you!
THE A-10 "WARTHOG" DISPLAY
Near the south gate to the USAF Academy visitors pass the airfield and a
public display of two planes significant in Air Force history: the
Fairchild-Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II and the Northrop T-38 Talon.
A-10 Thunderbolt II is a single-seat, twin-engine, straight-wing jet
aircraft designed and built in 1970 to meet the U.S. Air Force's requirement
for a plane that could provide close air support for ground troops. The
aircraft is also designed to provide significant protection to its occupants
even if it receives heavy damage in combat. It's too bad the plane wasn't
designed before the war in Viet Nam. A lot of lessons were learned the
hard way there that led to the introduction of the A-10.
The Thunderbolt moniker comes from a fighter plane used in WWII. The more
common nickname for the modern Thunderbolt is "Warthog" or just "Hog." Here's the one on display
at the USAFA:
The A-10 has proven to be an effective aircraft with various upgrades over
the last four decades; it is expected to be in use for many more years.
You can read more about its history, design, advantages, and use in
various wars at this
(I know, I know . . .) and other websites.
Per the Thunderbird
website, the team began flying the
supersonic Northrop T-38A Talon aircraft in 1974 because it was more
fuel-efficient than the F-4s they'd been using for several years.
After a tragic accident during an aerial demonstration in 1982, however,
the T-38 was no longer used by the Thunderbirds.
The Talon shown below is on display at the Academy, with an explanation
of its paint scheme.
Fortunately, the Thunderbird aerial team's safety record is
exceedingly good. Such crashes during practice or demonstrations
are very rare.
The Thunderbird team has an interesting
history, including the reasons it was formed, why the name was
chosen, who the pioneering pilots were, what different planes have been used,
where the team has performed, and lots of other information.
This is the 57th year for the Thunderbirds to perform. You can see who the
current members of the
team are and
where they will perform this year -- a whopping 73 performances in the
U.S. and Canada! I highly recommend going to see a show if they come to your
Next entry: scenic loop through the Pike National Forest
west of Colorado Springs
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil,
and Cody the Ultra Lab
© 2010 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil