Chapter Twelve: The Thunderbirds

Members of the United States Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron "Thunderbirds" perform a high show demonstration in Reno, Nevada, September 19, 2021. Since the show site was separate from the takeoff site, no groundshow was conducted. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Nicolas Myers)

Early that Friday, Lt. Col. Gordon landed at Luke AFB, Arizona which was just located west of Phoenix to start a new chapter in his life. He was to soon find out that this new assignment would be the most challenging chapter in his life, so far. He was to discover that the flying he was about to do would be more demanding than any that he had experienced before. The sheer precision that his new unit exhibited was simply off the charts. Before we continue with his adventures, let’s get a little more background information on the Thunderbirds squadron.

After six months training in an unofficial status, the Thunderbirds were officially activated on June 1, 1953 as the 3600th Air Demonstration Team. The squadron, as Grandpa Gordon had surmised would relocate to his old stomping grounds at Nellis AFB in June 1956.

Their Mission was to first support Air Force recruiting and retention programs. Secondly, to reinforce public confidence in the Air Force and to demonstrate to the public the professional competence of Air Force members. Thirdly, to strengthen morale and esprit de corps among Air Force members. Fourthly, to support Air Force community relations and people-to-people programs, and lastly to represent the United States and its armed forces to foreign nations and to project international goodwill.

As a side note, the USAF Thunderbirds are the third-oldest formal flying aerobatic team (under the same name) in the world, after the French Air Force Patrouille de France formed in 1931 and the United States Navy Blue Angels formed in 1946.

The squadron is an Air Combat Command unit composed of eight pilots (including six demonstration pilots), four support officers, three civilians and more than 130 enlisted personnel performing in 25 career fields. Their flight season lasts from March to November, with the winter months being used to train new members.

The pilots besides serving as demonstration pilots are also part of the combat force. If required, they can be combat ready within 72 hours. Grandpa Gordon would be initially flying in the straight-winged F-84G Thunderjet. They would soon transition in 1955 to the swept-winged F-84F Thunderstreak. In 1956, they would again change to the F-100 Super Sabre, the world’s first supersonic fighter.

Officers serve a two-year assignment with the squadron, while enlisted personnel serve three to four. Replacements must be trained for about half of the team each year, providing a constant mix of experience. Grandpa Gordon would be performing in approximately 70 or so demonstrations each year throughout the US and international locations as well. They train from November to March and by the end of February, they are ready for the show season. Nevertheless, the first demonstration for every season is not held until the end of March. By this time, every pilot will have completed 100 flights. The team takes the month of December off and then performs for the rest of the season with one other week during the season slotted as a rest period. This means that every day from November to March, each pilot flies two to three flights a day.

The following listed criteria is for modern pilots in the 21st century. The criteria that Grandpa Gordon had to meet was considerably different, right down to how much flying time he had with each type of jet used in the squadron and the type of jets that he could personally fly. This information was necessary in part because during its formative years they frequently changed fighter jets as they searched for the one that best suited their needs. Since I could not find the actual criteria that they used in selecting their pilots, I did the next best thing and that was to include the current metrics used to give the reader some semblance on how stringent the selection process was.

The pilot candidates for the Thunderbirds aerobatic team must have at least 1000 flying hours on a jet fighter and must be current on the F-16. All candidates for the “Thunderbirds” must have at least three years (but no more than 12 years) of military service. From within all candidates, semifinalists are selected to join the squadron at the end of the season for additional assessment and evaluations during practice flights. Pilot candidates are assessed using the three F-16D aircraft. At the end of this assessment, the best are selected. Three demonstration pilots change every year. The assessment flights include close formation flying and some basic combat maneuvers. The commanding officer of the sqaudron will select the three new pilots who are then approved by the commander of combat aviation in the USAF. Each new member of the squadron must also pass a 21-day training course which contributes to their better integration of the team.

As mentioned previously, the squadron was activated on May 25, 1953 and by August they had already flown in 26 shows. The first team leader was Major Richard C. Catledge (1953–1954), and the first plane used by the unit was the straight-wing F-84G Thunderjet. Because the Thunderjet was a single-seat fighter, a two-seat T-33 Shooting Star served as the trainer’s aircraft and was also used as the VIP/Press ride aircraft. The T-33 served with the Thunderbirds in this capacity in the 1950s and 1960s.

In 1954, the Thunderbirds performed their first overseas air shows in a tour of South and Central America, and added a permanent solo routine to the demonstration. In the spring of 1955, under their second commander/leader (September 1954 – February 1957), Captain Jacksel M. Broughton, they moved to the swept-wing F-84F Thunderstreak aircraft, in which they performed 91 air shows, and received their first assigned support aircraft, a C-119 Flying Boxcar.

So, you can see Grandpa Gordon was certainly doing a lot of traveling, that is one of the reasons he thought it was best that Clara stay in Minneapolis to complete her schooling. He simply would not have had much time to spend with her. She, therefore, would have made the move for nothing. The pilots rotated out every two years, so by the time she finished her schooling he would be in another rotation, and maybe it would be an assignment that would allow him to spend more time with her.

I have included below some of the maneuvers that they do in their shows. I am doing this so that you can see what type of flying Grandpa Gordon will be doing for the next two years.

These maneuvers are by no means all of the ones that they perform in any given show. I, frankly don’t know how they do it. I can’t even remember the ones that I have included, let alone all of the ones that they do. I am glad it is Grandpa Gordon that will be doing them and not me.

The team experiences 50 percent turnover each year. Each team consists of three experienced demonstration pilots and three new demonstration pilots who recently earned their patch.

So, in a world where many businesses have been around for decades and yet their employees still can’t function together, how is it possible for six Airmen to rebuild this high performing organization each and every year?

By achieving success The Thunderbird Way.

Each pilot has earned distinction as a combat aviator in another fighter aircraft before being considered to join the elite Thunderbird Team. This training develops the skill required to function at over 1,000 miles per hour. Each pilot is technically competent and proficient in the skill set of being a pilot. This same principle can be applied to every person you hire in business. Basic skill must be an assumption of employment, and it must have been deliberately developed either before the member joins your team, or through training the Thunderbird way while on your team.

New Thunderbird hires, while technically proficient in their airframe, need deliberate and focused training to develop the skillset required to execute precision maneuvers the Thunderbird way at hundreds of miles per hour, just 75 feet above the earth. This is done in a highly structured four-month training season that involves, on average, three flights per day, five days per week. Do you train your business team with the skills expected in a similar manner? If you want to be part of a high performing team, the proper attention must be paid to developing the individuals who are expected to perform at an above average level.

In elite teams, each member must approach their task with discipline. They must understand that the team is always worth more than the individual and that together they can achieve more through individual attention to detail. In their book, The Wisdom of Teams, McKinsey partners Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith reveal the essence of a team is shared commitment. Without it, groups perform as individuals; with it, they become a powerful unit of collective performance.

The best teams invest a tremendous amount of time shaping a purpose that they can own. The best teams also translate their purpose into specific performance goals. And members of successful teams pitch in and become accountable with, and to, their teammates.

In the Thunderbird way, each demonstration pilot trusts that the skilled aviator flying 18 inches from them, or the opposing solo closing directly at them with over 1400 MPH of combined speed, will execute their maneuver with extreme precision and detail. This disciplined attention to detail enables a team to consistently produce precision.

Look around at the next meeting you attend. How many people are on their phone? How many are mentally checked out? How many are focused on the task at hand? For an Air Force Thunderbird, climbing the ladder of the Mighty Red, White and Blue F-16 leaves every problem, concern, and thought behind on the airport ramp. Each team member’s mind, their definitive focus, is on the performance at hand. These aviators compartmentalize to guarantee laser focus.

Compartmentalization has been recognized as the secret behind successful entrepreneurs and leaders for years. Recently, Ryan Blair revealed in Forbes his five-step system for dealing with adversity and extreme challenges while running a business:

Compartmentalize it. Isolate the issue from all the other challenges you are dealing with.

  • Apply extreme focus on each compartment, but only for a short period of time.
  • Move forward in incremental steps. And once you see progress…
  • Close the compartment and open the next one.
  • Say “no” to things that don’t deserve a compartment.

Earning a position on any elite team is about making the team better. Thunderbird aviators fly 18 inches from another aircraft. Their actions must be proactive, not reactive. To execute a precision demonstration the Thunderbird way, they must not only react to what is being said, they must know every move, and work as one. Although the Thunderbirds fly a front-line fighter aircraft, the show is executed by watching the ticks of an analog stopwatch and listening to the inflection and tone of the person talking on the radio. Each pilot must know what the other pilots are thinking and how they will actuate the controls of their multi-million dollar aircraft.

Few people experience what a high performing team actually feels like. The Thunderbirds, Blue Angels, SEALs, and a handful of other military teams know what it is truly like to put their lives in the hands of others, to have the skill and training to develop the discipline and focus to achieve ultimate teamwork, and to function as an elite, high-performing team.

From these individuals and teams, we can learn much that is applicable to the business world and to our own personal growth and improvement. The Thunderbird Way is about a shared purpose that allows, permits, and demands a high level of precision. It is about demonstrating the pride, professionalism, and dedication of the individual as well as the team. Most of all, it is about representing those who deserve the most credit: the men and women who voluntarily serve America and defend our freedom.

This is one of the many reasons that Grandpa Gordon does what he does and why he has fought in two wars.

One way that these ellite demonstration teams \can perform at such a high level day in and day out is through preventative care. This is very important because they don’t use back-up pilots, mainly because each pilot has a unique task to perform and no one person could be competent in all of these roles. That is one of the reasons that they utilize flight surgeons to closely monitor the health of the pilots. They take care of the minor health problems immediately before they have a chance to grow into bigger ones. They do a lot of physical training and conditioning in addition to flight training. The athletic trainers do measurements of body mobility, balance, and muscle imbalances. Combined with the observations made by the flight surgeons, they are able to create a training plan and workout routine that help to keep their pilots healthy and flying. Most of the pilots work-out five days a week to keep their body fit. The better the shape they are in the quicker they can recover from their grueling flight schedule.

The daily grind of travel, flight demonstrations, time zone changes, and lack of quality sleep can create severe mental stress. The Thunderbirds provide councelors and chaplains once or twice a month for their flight teams to help with this stress in addition to attending to their spiritual needs.

Before their performances, the pilots “chair fly” to visualize certain maneuvers. On performance days, the teams also do physical warm-ups to activate the muscles but not fatigue them.

The Thunderbirds keep a high level of physical and mental strength through an annual comprehensive G-force tolerance improvement program that includes centrifuge training as well as a personal strength exercise programs. These programs focus on the lower body, and cardiovascular capacity, proper daily hydration, nutrition, and sleep habits. The purpose of this program is to maximize G-tolerance through improvement and support aggressive daily maintenance of the physical and mental health of team member. Every aviator undergoes a mandatory annual comprehensive flight physical exam to prevent medical, physical or psychological conditions from adversely affecting flight performance, safety or the mission. Proper nutrition and hydration are important in maintaining bodies healthy enough to withstand the punishment of multi-G force flying.

I have included this information on the Thunderbirds to give the reader an idea what these pilots and Grandpa Gordon, in particular, go through in order to perform at such an exacting level.

I think Grandpa Gordon has had a long enough break so, let’s get back to our hero . We will pick up where we left off with Lt. Col. Gordon Anderson finally arriving at Luke AFB in Arizona. Once he got settled in he was introduced to the Thunderbird team leader Major Richard C. Catledge since Grandpa Gordon outranked him, they simply shook hands. Even though he had a stellar career he knew that he was not going to get any free ride in this squadron, he would be expected to prove himself.

So, he hopped in a fighter jet and went up to show what he had. He flew all of his favorite maneuvers including 360’s and barrel rolls and free falls and what not to show them what he was capable of. When he got back to the ground the team leader said, “Not bad, but how are you with flying in close formation?”

Grandpa Gordon shrugged his shoulders in reply. So, Major Catledge said, “Let’s find out”.

So he quickly suited up and they both took off again. This time Grandpa Gordon played the role of a wingman. When they got into formation, Major Catledge asked him why he was so far away?

Major Catlegde said, “We fly as close as 18 inches apart”, and the major signaled him to pull in closer. Then he instructed Grandpa Gordon what maneuver he was going to do next. and all the while maintaining as close a distance as possible to him. So, he banked to the left and Gordon hung with him. Afterwards, he tried a few other simple maneuvers and Gordon remained within a couple of feet to him each and every time he altered his flight path.

When they had finished those simple maneuvers, the Major signaled to him that it was time to land. When they got back on the ground, he told him that he had performed pretty well for his first time. Lt Col. Gordon had said that he had never flown that close to another pilot before. The major smiled and said, “that is what we do here.” He also said that there was only three positions available on the team and that there were six pilots vying for those positions, so even though he had the best record of the group he was not guaranteed a place on the team.

After he submitted his application which included his flying and fitness records, his performance reports and a letter of recommendation from his previous CO, he then had to go through the selection process. Over the next couple of days, he competed with the other five prospects and at the end of trials he had secured one of the three coveted places on the team. Was there ever any doubt? He was a natural pilot so you had to know that he was going to get a spot. Since he had just came back from a four-month leave of absence he was not elligible for any time off in December when the squadron took their time off. So he stayed at the base and since the Major was still fairly knew to the squadron he remained behind as well.

So for the next 30 days, Major Catledge and Grandpa Gordon flew one to two training flights every day from Monday through Friday. As time progressed, they became good friends and they started to really synch in their flying. Grandpa Gordon could not believe how much better his flying improved. The Major was trully a phenomenal flyer.

The month of December was over fairly quickly and the rest of the squadron came back from their leave. Now they began their coordinated flying training and practice began in earnest. Every year they tried a couple of new maneuvers or routines to keep the show fresh and appealing for their fans and Thunderbird junkies. Even though they had just started their demonstation flights there was already a loyal following starting to build up.

Below I am going to describe a typical day of Grandpa Gordon’s while he was in the Thunderbird Squadron.

He began his day with a five to six-mile jog around the base, followed by some calisthenics after which he then headed to the shower located at their barracks and then he zipped off to get a quick breakfast in the mess hall. When 0630 rolled around, he headed to his daily briefing for a situation rep and where the team would discuss the planned flights for the day. This meeting could last as long as two hours. They spent the rest of their day either flying or prepping for their flights. After each of their flights, they would debrief and discuss what happened and if there is anything that needed to to be tweaked.

At 1200, they took a quick lunch break. On any given day, they could expect to spend a little time with the flight surgeon to make sure that they were in peak condition. They would get in at least one or two more flights in the afternoon depending on the weather or time constraints. They then wrapped up their day discussing the last flight. They usually called it a day at 1600. Grandpa Gordon now had the option of either eating dinner at the mess hall or going to a local diner for a change of pace. He usually opted for the mess hall grub to save money.

In the days leading up to their show dates, Grandpa Gordon and the rest of the team would fly five miles in every direction from the center of the showsite to learn the airspace and to find any visual cues and landmarks that they can use as reference points for timing aids in their maneuvers.

On show day, they held a pre-flight meeting where they discussed the entire demonstration from start to finish. One thing that they had to contend with that most other fighter pilots did not have to deal with and that was climate differences depending on where their shows were being held. It turns out that precision jets are sensitive to temperature and altitude differences. The conditions they flew could range from 110 degrees in Las Vegas to 70 degrees and super windy in locations like Fort Worth or Chicago.

In one of his typical shows, his team spends around 35 minutes of time in the air. During this time, they fly as I have shown in the diagrams above a multitude of different formations. The solo pilots do additional single jet maneuvers as well. The show usually ends with all six jets coming together into a V-shaped or delta formation. Everything happens extremely fast for them since the team is so focused. They typically keep their speed at 400 to 450 miles an hour even though their planes are capable of flying much faster.

With the close proximity of their formations, the human body simply cannot react fast enough at the planes’ maximum speeds. Besides they are not allowed to break the sound barrier unless there is an emergency because the sonic boom associated with supersonic flying could break the windows in nearby houses. The max speed they hit is 650 mph, which is just below the speed of sound.

The squadron flies the same show each and every day. And to prepare for their shows, they fly up to two or three times a day during the training season. This is to make sure that the’ve got their demonstration dialed in so that the show takes place without any mishaps,

Fridays are Grandpa Gordons favorite day because he and the team get to interact with high school and college students. He also visits pediatric units at various hospitals to help bring joy to their young hard lives. The two years of this assignment went by quite quickly and the month he got to spend with his Clara were simply exquisite. She was doing well in her nursing program. He could tell that she was going to make a great nurse. As his time with the squadron drew to a close, he knew that he was going to miss the camaraderie and the relationships that he had developed. His whole experience had been simply magical. The only solace that he could take from this was that he would be able to soon get married to Clara.

With the relocation of the Thunderbirds at Nellis he was back with his old CO Col. Frank Miller only now he was a brigadier general in command of the 4525th Fighter Weapons Wing. As promised, when Grandpa Gordon finally completed his rotation with the Thunderbirds he was promoted to Colonel. After his tour was completed he paid a visit to his old friend, the newly promoted General to pay his respects and to talk over his next move.