Arizona’s history is rich with the culture of Native Americans. One of the best known legends to be passed down through the generations is that of the mighty thunderbird. Depending on who told the story, the bird was depicted as either an eagle or a hawk which had the power to give victory to warriors over the forces of evil. As the story goes, the bird would take off into the sky on great wings with a force which caused the earth to shake due to the thunder which resulted from the bird’s actions. Lightening shooting from the eyes, coupled with the thunder, dared anything in nature to compete with or attempt to conquer the mighty thunderbird.
The jet age was still an active participant in the diaper derby when the National Security Act was signed into law by President Harry S. Truman on July 26, 1947. The legislation brought about the most extensive restructuring of the United States military since the Civil War and added a new branch to the armed forces. On September 18, 1947, the Air Force was born. This branch was designed to be co-equal with the Army and Navy. In addition to the Air Force, the law also added the National Security Administration (NSA) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
As with any freshly released product on the market, the new kid on the block had an immediate need for self-promotion. The Air Force’s “top brass” sought to get the word out in an effort to create support for funding the equipment (planes) and recruitment (pilots) needed by the new military branch. What better way to do so than by using a combination of the two to accomplish the task?
The first air demonstration team was activated on May 25, 1953 at Luke Air Force Base in Glendale, AZ. This group traced its lineage back to the 30th Bombardment Squadron, organized at Camp Kelly, TX on June 13, 1917, which served in France during World War I. The original demonstration team was composed of training squadron commander Major Dick Catledge as team leader; Captains Bill and Buck Pattillo (twin brothers), left and right wing, respectively; and slot position (the difficult spot sandwiched between the two wingmen and behind the leader) Captain Bob Kanaga, a flight instructor at Luke AFB. Captain Bob McCormick was chosen as the spare pilot. He and the Pattillo brothers had previous experience as demonstration pilots, having flown with the Sabre Dancers.
Any new product needs a catchy name/logo attached to it if the promotion efforts are going to “fly” and the demonstration team was no different. In June 1953, a contest was held at Luke AFB to decide the unit’s name. ‘Thunderbirds’ was chosen. The name was totally appropriate due to the location of their birth (Arizona) and how well the events during the jets’ take-off compared to the Indian legend of the mighty bird.
June 1953, the Thunderbirds’ debut exhibition took place, beginning with Cheyenne Frontier Days in Cheyenne, WY. The squad flew straight-wing F-84G Thunderjets for this demonstration with a bird motif on the underside of the aircraft.
Each officer serves two years with the squadron and the enlisted personnel serve three or four. Replacements for the various posts on the team are constantly in training in an effort to provide a continuous experience blend.
There are times when the friendly skies take on a bit of a gridiron environment for the Thunderbirds and their counterpart, the Navy’s Blue Angels. In the mid-80s, the Blue Angels were scheduled to perform at the Brunswick Naval Air Station in Maine. Shortly before the show began, the Thunderbirds came shrieking across the skies overhead with smoke on, creating a very impressive display for the crowd. It was later learned this was a friendly payback for the day before when the Blue Angels buzzed the Thunderbirds’ show at Pease AFB in Portsmith, NH during the autograph session.
Though the Thunderbirds are a demonstration team, they are first and foremost a vital part of the United States Air Force, and as such, serve in the combat force when needed. Since February 15, 1974, the Thunderbirds continue to be a component of the 57th Wing, located at Nellis AFB Nevada.