Airshows

In 2019 Thunderbirds called in 15 former team commanders for brutal and honest input to help improve the Squadron

By the end of 2019, Col. John Caldwell, Thunderbirds commander and No. 1 pilot, called in 15 former Thunderbirds for their brutal and honest input on the team since there were parts of the squadron that needed work and improvement.

The first overhauled performance in about 38 years will be included in the US Air Force Thunderbirds’ 2021 airshow season. It also marks the beginning of a culture change for a team that in recent years has seen some of its lowest points.

Col. John Caldwell, Thunderbirds commander and No. 1 pilot, took command in 2018. As reported by Air Force Magazine, at the time the team was coming out of a couple of tumultuous years that included a fatal crash, along with multiple other serious mishaps and the firing of a commander. With a new commander and new team, Caldwell led the team through a 2019 season looking to “stabilize the system.” The Thunderbirds in fact didn’t push the envelope and instead focused on flying safely and getting through the season by executing the basics.

By the end of 2019, Caldwell called in 15 former Thunderbirds for their brutal and honest input on the team since there were parts of the squadron that needed work and improvement.

“Everything was on the table, which requires you to assume a little bit of humility there when you’re inviting 15 folks who previously have done your job to come here and critique you on how you’re doing,” Caldwell said. “But we didn’t have a forum like that in the past—we didn’t have the ability, in a productive way, where these folks could provide critiques.”

The former commanders came to the team’s home at Nellis Air Force Base (AFB), Nev., to watch the “combat acceptance show” when the head of Air Combat Command watches the team’s performance and approves them to start the show season.

The 15 commanders watched Caldwell fly, sat in the pre-flight briefing and debrief, and ultimately gave some strong feedback.

“It was pretty eye-opening, some of the critiques we received and some of the information that we got from that group,” he said. “It was enough to where we realized there was some serious work that we needed to execute, to get this team back to where we wanted it to be in precision formation flying and precision air show demonstration.”

Following this, the Thunderbirds “committed ourselves to that idea that we were going to work on trying to recapture some of … these versions of the team we had in the past” and push to get better.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the team spent 2020 developing the “America Strong” flyovers with the US Navy’s Blue Angels and flying “basic air shows,” and when the season ended, they decided to take a deep look at their performance and overall operations to find ways to reinvent and improve.

The result was 59 separate initiatives for the team to address, ranging from individual maneuvers in the sky, to the equipment they use, to cameras and tracking devices to “police” their flying and find ways to improve.

Caldwell said the team’s performance over the years had become a “hodgepodge” of individual tweaks, none of which came together to give it an overall theme.

The 2021 show includes eight types of new maneuvers, a changed sequence, new music and narration, changes to the ground show, and the shutdown. The team rewrote its operations manual and installed things like GoPros in the cockpits, GPS trackers to show the exact lines pilots flew, and a new digital video recorder system. These changes “eliminated all the subjectiveness from it. It is cold, hard data that we can look at. And it’s very unemotional: You either did it right or did it wrong, and we have the data here to prove it. And that’s what really made the team, I think, more effective and better.”

This year’s season includes at least 28 shows, with more to be added to the schedule.

A Thunderbirds air demonstration is a mix of formation flying and solo routines. The four-aircraft diamond formation demonstrates the training and precision of Air Force pilots, while the solo aircraft highlight the maximum capabilities of the F-16 Fighting Falcon.

The pilots perform approximately 30 maneuvers in a demonstration. The entire show, including ground and air, runs about an hour and fifteen minutes. The season lasts from March to November, with the winter months used to train new members.

For more interesting news and info about US Air Force Thunderbirds and other display teams check out Aerobatic Display Teams website.

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Photo credit: dbking via Wikipedia

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