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Behind the scenes with the Air Force Thunderbirds

IPIX 360° images

June 29, 1999
Web posted at: 5:51 p.m. EDT (2151 GMT)

In this story:

A 'family' environment

Precise to a 't'



NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nevada (CNN) -- It was windy (20 kt) and hot (105 F) the day we first set foot on the glaring concrete tarmac outside the red, white and blue hangar that has been home to the Thunderbirds for four decades now.

As we waited for the team to return from a show in cooler climes (Hamilton, Ontario), we all felt like we were on the business end of a giant blow-drier. But it is a dry heat, ya know. Just like it is inside my oven ... OK, I'll quit talking about the weather.

When the team arrived, I instantly got a new impression of what makes the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron tick: It is the enlisted men and women -- not the guys with the white scarves strapped into their $23 million F-16C air-chariots. (Sorry, boys, but this is something those of us who are on the air share in common with you: Lots of hard-working, excellent people behind the scenes committed to making us look good.)

A 'family' environment

About 60 maintainers, mechanics, crew chiefs, schedulers, inspectors, quality controllers, communications and public affairs specialists marched off a C-141 cargo hauler. They were greeted by an equal number of their enlisted Thunder-brethren who had stayed behind. Decked out in their navy-blue (Oops, I guess that would be Air Force blue) Thunderbirds uniforms and identical Ray-Ban Aviator shades, they saluted, hand-shook and high-fived their way down the line like athletes savoring a team triumph.

"I consider the Thunderbirds squadron a family," says the man they call "Boss" -- lead pilot and squadron commander Lt. Col. Brian Bishop. After all, the show schedule keeps them away from home 200 to 250 days a year. During their stint with the Thunderbirds (two years for officers -- three years for enlisted folks), home time becomes very precious, indeed.

"It is truly amazing to see how these men and women get together," says Bishop -- an Air Force Academy graduate who's logged more than 3,000 hours in high performance jets. "No kidding -- when the support aircraft hit the ground -- they scatter and then 10 minutes before the jets arrive everyone is back in place and everything is done. It is an amazing process to watch."

The next morning, we had a chance to watch a Thunderbird air show from an amazing perspective. We drove to their practice area near Indian Springs -- 35 miles north of Las Vegas.

Our guide through the hour-long session was the team's operations officer, Maj. Constantine Tzavaras -- or "Chachi." He flies Thunderbird No. 7, a spare for the air shows (in 46 years, a T-Birds show has never been cancelled because of a mechanical problem). One of his primary jobs is evaluating the team's performance in the air -- at shows and during practice.

Precise to a 't'

We waited near the spot where, in 1982, the Thunderbirds diamond formation augured into the desert floor as they came out of a loop. Apparently, there was a problem with the actuator in the control stick of the leader's T-38. And since his wingmen focus intently (and entirely) on the leader's wing -- and their 18-inch proximity to it -- they all flew into the ground in perfect unison. After that, the Air Force decided the team should fly the more advanced, more robust F-16.

Watching the practice, listening to the team's radio calls -- and Chachi's critique -- was fascinating. Col. Bishop keeps his team flying right and tight with an easy, melodic cadence. When he says "smoke, on, ready, now," the white trails start billowing behind the jets at the "n" in "now."

When he says "left turn," he starts his move on the "t" -- and so do his wingmen. "We want to make it look like one airplane," Bishop told me.

To our untrained eyes, the diamond was exactly that. And the two solo fliers played their high-speed games of "chicken" with aplomb. But Chachi was dictating several nits. "OK, finish maneuver was TT shallow ... TT vertical in the set ... TT low ... TT high..."

TT? What up with that? I tried guessing: Truncated Turn? Tenacious Try? Task Taken? Trim Tail?

"It's 'Teeny Tiny'" Chachi explained later. "We are looking at the complete esthetics of the entire maneuver from a crowd perspective."

"We can take a fighter pilot from the Air Force with a thousand hours (the minimum to apply) put him through a three and a half month rigorous training program and put him in front of the crowd at altitudes as low as 75 feet and perform precise maneuvers," Tzavaras says.

In fact, I was under a mistaken impression before coming out here that Thunderbirds pilots were the best stick-rudder guys in the Air Force. Not necessarily so.

Says Col. Bishop: "I can train an average pilot to fly the demonstration but I cannot train an outstanding pilot to go out and tell the Air Force story -- a lot of that comes as a natural sense of personality."

After all, the Thunderbirds are probably the best sales team the Air Force has. They won me over with a 9-G flight of fancy over Death Valley. I'll tell you about that next week.

Space Correspondent Miles O'Brien's column appears on Tuesdays.

Las Vegas turn-around
June 23, 1999
Downlinks archive

Civil Air Patrol Thunderbird Composite Squadron
USAF Thunderbirds
USAF Thunderbird Alumni
Apollo 11
NASA Apollo 11 30th Anniversary
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