The Thunderbirds Are Back With Their First New Demonstration in Nearly Forty Years

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The United States Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, the Thunderbirds are back with their first new demonstration in nearly forty years.

The Thunderbirds describe their 2021 demonstration as “Where Grace Meets Power.” According to the Team, the new demonstration is a mix of six aircraft performing formation flying and solo routines. The four-ship Diamond formation showcases the precision and training of U.S. Air Force Pilots, as well as the gracefulness of the F-16. The two Solo pilots display the power and maximum capabilities of the mighty F-16 Fighting Falcon.

The redesigned aerial demonstration and ground performances are a positive change that the squadron committed to during the lost demonstrations of the 2020 season.

“We are very excited about the changes we have made to our show and ground performance,” said Col. John Caldwell, Thunderbird Commander and Leader. “One of our main goals was to take a look at our show sequence and enhance the design with the crowd experience in mind.”

The show revision required hard work, historical research, and coordination with the air show industry, Thunderbird Alumni, Air Combat Command, and Headquarters Air Force. Every Thunderbird team member played a valuable role in meeting and achieving the goal of redesigning a compatible presentation, safe and engaging for air show attendees observing the new demonstration.

The most noticeable changes to the performance are the reordering and implementation of new maneuvers during the aerial demonstration. The new show sequence now follows seven distinct themes that focus on increasing crowd excitement, tapping into the emotions of onlookers, and gradually showcasing the maneuvers’ complexities.

The seven-show themes each have a unique purpose.

1. The Grand Opening, designed for excitement and attention-getting.
2. Precision, exhibiting the attention to detail and formation flying.
3. Speed and Motion, demonstrating aircraft and human Motion.
4. Patriotic Pride, embodying Patriotism.
5. Strength and Beauty, displaying American ingenuity.
6. Grace and Beauty, promoting Teamwork.
7. The Grand Finale, Inspiration, and Lasting Impact.

These themes were implemented to better connect the audiences through performance sequences centered around emotion and entertainment.

The Thunderbirds also added new narration and music to match the high energy tempo and the performance of the latest demonstration. The music and narration align with the shortened aircraft reposition time between the Diamond and Solo maneuvers to provide non-stop action for the audience.

I spoke with Major Ian’ Bear’ Lee, Thunderbird #2, Left Wing, when he arrived at the 177th FW stationed at Atlantic City International Airport in Egg Harbor Township, NJ, on Monday, August 16th.

The Thunderbirds have changed their routine for only the third time in their 68 year history and for the first time since switching to the F-16 in 1983. The flying performance was shortened from 45 minutes to 30 minutes by eliminating six redundant flight profiles. The Team also is adding eight new maneuvers to include the Low Bomb Burst with Hit and the Stinger Cross-Break for low and flat shows. What impact have the changes had on the Team and audiences thus far?

In terms of the Team, it’s definitely a lot safer. We have reduced the G’s but have kept the excitement and the volume of the show-up. In terms of the actual viewers themselves, we cut a lot of the dead time out in between the actual maneuvers, so it’s kind of constant action going throughout, which is why this show is a little bit shorter.

Last year, while the Team conducted the workups for the Operation America Strong flyovers, the squadron tested colored smoke in Pensacola, Florida. Did the Team like the results of those tests, and is there any chance we will see the return of colored smoke to the Thunderbird performance?

I wasn’t on the Team back then when we had the colored smoke. As far as I have heard, we are sticking with the white smoke.

The Team has improved its critique of each performance by adding 59 separate new initiatives, including GoPro cameras, GPS tracking devices, and a digital video recorder. Has the Team found these changes to be effective in sharpening their flying skills?

Oh, absolutely. We’ve trained the new pilots and debriefed ourselves to see if we are flying out of position. So all the digital upgrades that we’ve done have significantly enhanced our debrief.

Is any video being recorded from the aircraft, or is that all done from the ground?

It is being done from the aircraft as well. We have the GoPro 360’s in the cockpit.

The F-16’s have received a new lap belt because the stock belt on the aircraft wasn’t considered sufficient for the amount of inverted flying the Team does and because your pilots were getting injured. How does this new belt differ from the standard F-16 belt?

It’s great. We did a lot of work with the airshow industry on the civilian side to see what would work best. They do a lot of negative G things and go upside down as well. So we wanted to pick their brains about what works well with their lap belts. We mocked up something similar to what they use.

Are all of these aircraft already equipped with them?

The majority of them are. I think some of the newer ones aren’t quite there yet.

The Atlantic City Airshow is a beach show. The Thunderbird performance opens miles away at the Atlantic City International Airport with the Maintenance Ground Show. The ground show has been streamlined to match how airmen rapidly generate aircraft during an alert. Verbal communications were replaced with hand signals.

With the Team’s confidence in its maintainers, the squadron launches with the four-ship Diamond Takeoff and the Solo’s with the Loop on Takeoff maneuvers.

The 2021 Diamond is flown by Thunderbird #1, the Commander and Lead pilot, Colonel John Caldwell. Thunderbird #2, Left Wing Pilot, Major Ian Lee, Thunderbird #3, Right Wing Pilot, Major Zane Taylor and Thunderbird #4, Slot Pilot, Major Michael Brewer. The Solo’s for 2021 are Thunderbird #5, Lead Solo Pilot Major Michelle Curran and Thunderbird #6, Opposing Solo Pilot Major Kyle Oliver.

As the Thunderbirds approach from behind the show center, the six aircraft form a Delta formation and overfly Atlantic City’s, Boardwalk Hall. It has been here that the Thunderbirds have called home for nearly every summer since 2003.

THE GRAND OPENING

As the roar of the six Pratt & Whitney F-100 PW 229 powered F-16’s clear the crowd on the beach, the opening notes to AC/DC’s ‘Thunderstruck’ fill the speakers along the boardwalk. The formation breaks in two, with the four aircraft Diamond performing the Diamond Cloverloop opener. The Solos position for their opening maneuver, the Crossover Break.

PRECISION

This portion of the show demonstrates the squadron’s precision as they perform various passes, including the Diamond Pass in Review, the Solos Knife Edge Pass, the Diamond Roll, Solo Calypso Pass, and ending with the Echelon Pass in Review.

SPEED AND MOTION

If you are a fan of jet teams, this is arguably your favorite part of the show. Major Curran used the Casino Hotels and piers to obscure Thunderbird #5’s approach from behind the crowd. As she entered the Showbox to perform the Sneak Pass, she engaged the afterburner at just over 700 MPH or .92 Mach (of the speed of sound). The beach environment is soaked with humidity and is perfect for the vapor cones both the audience and photographers crave.

Major Oliver contrasts major Curran’s pass in Thunderbird #6 by performing a Slow Rollbefore before Thunderbird #5 returns with an Aileron Roll pass.

The Diamond closes this portion of the performance with the Bon Ton Roulle (Good Roll) before the Solo’s return with an Opposing Knife-edge Pass.

PATRIOTIC PRIDE

The Diamond begins with a Trail to Diamond (Bottom Up) Pass, followed by the Solo’s Opposing Inverted Pass. The Diamond then repositions from the trail to a Diamond Cloverloop.

The Opposing Solo joins the Diamond through a Rejoin to Stinger Pass, forming a five-aircraft formation for the first new maneuver.

The Low Bomb Burst is a high adrenaline fantastic new addition to the performance, with the Opposing Solo rejoining the formation with another Sneak Pass.

GRACE AND BEAUTY

The Lead Solo opens this portion of the show with a High Alpha Pass into a Muscle Climb which was particularly exciting as it crossed over the crowd-filled Pier in front of Caesar’s Casino.

The five-ship formation continued with a 5-Card Loop before the Lead Solo repositions and performs the Vertical Rolls. The five-ship then completed the Line Break Loop before the Lead Solo returned to demonstrate the Max Turn capability of the F-16, followed by a Half Cuban Eight maneuver.

STRENGTH AND BEAUTY

This performance segment opens with the Delta 360 before both Solos rejoin for a Delta formation Bottom Up Pass. The six ships perform the Delta Roll, Delta Loop, and Delta Burst before the Solo’s reposition for an Opposing Split S maneuver. While the Thunderbirds have used the Split S for many years, the Team added an afterburning Diamond Sneak Pass from behind the crowd that was a thriller.

THE GRAND FINALE

The last segment of the performance begins with the High Bomb Burst with the Diamond reforming for the Thunderbird Pitch, followed by the Solo’s performing the Reflection Pitch. All six ships then rejoined into a Delta formation and did a slow Reflection Pass out to sea before exiting the show to show right. The many that have seen the Thunderbirds over the years were left a little confused. Was that the end of the show, many asked? The graceful Reflection Pass as a closer was an unusual choice to us who are used to the Delta Blue Out and the Solo Aileron and Inverted Pitches. The Thunderbird routinely ended with high-energy maneuvers. However, the Thunderbirds designed the Grand Finale for “Inspiration and Lasting Impact,” which they delivered.

It was an exciting show, and I found myself checking the time, hoping there was much more to come in this fast-paced, high-energy performance. I welcomed and appreciated the changes the Thunderbirds made to their show. I went to practice on Tuesday without learning the sequence of the maneuvers, and I was able to experience the surprise and thrill I first shared with the Thunderbirds. I believe the Thunderbirds have accomplished what they set out to achieve and deserve a pat on the back for a job well done!

For a library of the entire Thunderbirds’ maneuvers, see the slide show below:

I wish to thank Major Ian Lee of the Thunderbirds for his time and for providing me with the interview. He is a skilled, experienced F-16 pilot with over 1,700 flight hours, including more than 470 combat hours over Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. Major Lee is also a former F-16 Viper Instructor, serving with the 8th Fighter Squadron at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. He is a 2010 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he double majored in Economics and management.

I also wish to thank Michael Chiat of the Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce and the Atlantic City Airshow’ A Salute to Service’ and Senior Master Sergeant Andrew Moseley and Senior Airman Cristina Allen of the 177th FW Public Affairs Office for their assistance.

More photos of the 2021 Thunderbords team:

https://www.resolutionrentals.com/


Mike Colaner

Mike Colaner is a native of Central New Jersey and still resides there today with his family. I always had a fascination with aviation with both NAS Lakehurst and McGuire Air Force Base nearby to my boyhood home. Upon graduating High School, I went to work for Piasecki Aircraft Corporation at NAEC Lakehurst. I worked in the engineering department on the PA-97 Helistat project as a draftsman. I soon enlisted in the United States Marine Corps and served four years active duty with both the 2nd Marine Division and 1st Marine Aircraft Wing. After completing my enlistment, I went to college and became a New Jersey State Trooper. I recently retired after serving 25 years and I am looking for my next adventure. I am very glad that I have been able to join this team and to share my passion with all of you.

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