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‘We’re your Air Force’: Thunderbirds celebrate 69 years representing the branch with a peek inside their signature wild rides

UPDATED: Thu., May 12, 2022

Sure, fireworks are all well and good. But when it comes to airborne entertainment, there’s nothing quite like watching the Thunderbirds.

And flying with them?

“It never gets old,” Thunderbird 1, Lt. Col. Justin J. Elliott said. “Every single time we fly, it’s a challenge … but it’s one of those intrinsically rewarding jobs … you leave happy.

“And all these red, white and blue airplanes – that means something bigger than any one of us individually.”

The Thunderbirds will give two performances showcasing their characteristic F-16 Fighting Falcons, the Air Force’s “premier multirole fighter jet,” during SkyFest at Fairchild Air Force Base this weekend. The event is free and open to the public.

To join this elite group, pilots are required to serve at least 10 years in the Air Force.

“For me, 17 years to lead the team,” Elliott said. The current Thunderbird pilots have piloting experience from all six of the fighter weapons systems. “And that means a lot to me because we’re a pretty good cross-section of the Air Force … different backgrounds all coming together to fly the F-16 for this demo.”

Fulfilling a childhood dream diverted by several years of combat and test flying, Elliott took command of the Thunderbirds in December. Since then, he’s scarcely had a dull moment.

“It’s a whole lot of flying to try to get this demo pulled together,” he said.

By the time they “hit the road” each season, the Thunderbird pilots have flown their maneuvers more than 100 times. That might seem like a lot of rehearsal time, But when a pilot is routinely surpassing 500 miles per hour, 18 inches away from another fighter, Elliott said, that’s the only way to do it.

“Most people will assume that I mean 18 inches of wingtip spacing,” Elliott said. There are actually about 10 feet of wingtip overlap. “The 18 inches is from the canopy of number four to the wingtip of the jet above.

“Number four flies right behind me. So he’s got moments in the show where my burner can is sitting right here, 18 inches off of his side, and number three’s missile rail is 18 inches off the other side. It’s very, very, very close.”

At each stop along their airshow tour, the pilots start by “getting a lay of the land.”

First, the team runs solo flight passes. Meanwhile, “the diamond” – four jets, with Elliott in the lead – moves out “trying to memorize about a 5-mile radius around this base, getting to know the terrain where the slopes are, where the obstacles are, where the towers are, and most important, where those left to right, front and back lines are so that we can hit the crowd straight on 90-degree angles.”

The Thunderbirds are scheduled to fly in 62 airshows this year.

Flying between locations is no easy task. In fact, whether that’s north, south, east or west, cross-country travel often proves almost as demanding as performing.

“You’ve got to keep in mind, we fly formations of seven to eight when we’re flying across the country,” he said. “The chances of something going wrong with our jets is very high – the chances of encountering weather is 100%.”

And then, of course, about every 45 minutes, the jets take turns refueling – in flight. Six teams flying across the country sometimes will refuel up to five times in transit. The actual refueling is facilitated by crews from Fairchild, and takes less than 10 minutes.

“There’s always somebody getting refueled while the other guys are waiting on the wing of the tanker,” Elliott said. “On this team, it’s pretty high-intensity the whole time, but that’s what makes it fun.”

Based out of Nellis, Nevada, the Thunderbirds are celebrating their 69th year representing the U.S. Air Force.

“What we’re trying to present to the crowd is excellence in the name of service as something bigger than ourselves,” Elliot said. “Our show is the absolute pinnacle of precision flying, done at low altitudes and fighter speeds … close enough to the ground that you won’t just hear it, you’ll feel it in your chest.”

In past years, SkyFest has brought more than 70,000 viewers to Fairchild, but this year they hope to hit 100,000, said Col. Cassius Bentley, commander of the 92d Air Refueling Wing at Fairchild.

“I know it’s a tough time,” Elliott said. “But it’s really exciting to see the United States coming out of the COVID era and moving forward … we really appreciate folks coming out … because I think what you’re gonna see is a really strong showing from the Air Force. We’re your Air Force, we’re here for you and we’re excited to show you what we’re capable of.”

The Thunderbirds will perform at 3:15 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For information, visit

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