The Thunderbirds: Heaven’s Symphony Orchestra

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Since 1953 this team has been ambassador of the United States Air Force (USAF) in the world. Today, on the side of their sleek F-16s, they display the flags of all the countries they have visited. More than 60 nations in the world have had the pleasure of having the aerial maneuvers of this team.

Since it began its activity at the beginning of the 50’s, the team has remained as such to this day, being the third oldest in the world under the same name, only surpassed by the Blue Angels -created in 1946- and the Patrouille Acrobatique de France –created in 1931-.

During this rich history there are many anecdotes, achievements and also bitter moments they have faced. The inherent risk of their flights has meant that several of their members have been the protagonists of sad accidents, but that has not diminished their fine work during their flights.

Its pilots are part of the team for two years, while the ground and support staff can be for four years. Everyone can be called to combat duty at any time, so the readiness level is always high. Officially the Thunderbirds are currently part of the 57th Wing based at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, in the United States.


The first team they flew was the straight-wing Republic F-84 Thunderjet jet, with a Lockheed T-33 as the two-seater aircraft. They would then switch to the arrow-wing F-84F Thunderstreak and be assigned a Fairchild C-119 as support aircraft.

By the year 1956 -three years after its birth-, they received the North American F-100C Super Saber and acquired supersonic capacity, which they took advantage of in some air shows until this type of flight was prohibited over US territory. For 1963 they made their first tour of Europe and for 1964 the group was re-equipped with the Republic F-105 Thunderchief, which would prove to be a bad decision after a fatal accident. The heavy F-105 was not a good aircraft for routine, so the F-100D was returned.

In 1969 they were assigned the McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom and during that time they would have the same aircraft as the US Navy’s Blue Angels team. It was in that same period that the team implemented the now familiar white scheme.

The 1973 oil crisis hit the Thunderbirds as well and operating the F-4Es was not profitable so they were fitted with Northrop T-38 Talon aircraft. The fuel used to fly five T-38s was the same as that used to fly a single F-4. The routines also changed, but the speed and vertigo remained.

With these planes the team suffered its most sensitive loss in 1982 when four pilots died in an accident during a test. A technical failure in the lead aircraft prevented it from recovering after a maneuver. The formation pilots, aware of what the leader was doing, did not worry about his closeness to the ground. All four planes hit the ground at the same time.

It was the following year when they received the General Dynamics F-16, an aircraft that has been maintained for more than 30 years as their workhorse and banner in any airspace in the world where they hold their presentations.

More than 3,000 presentations in front of 300,000 spectators in more than fifty countries. The Thunderbirds stand out as one of the most renowned aerobatic teams in the world.

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The Thunderbirds: Heaven’s Symphony Orchestra

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