Since the team’s inception, 325 officers have worn the distinguished emblem of “America’s Ambassadors in Blue.” Through selfless dedication, a desire to excel and a constant commitment to improvement, these leaders have channeled their efforts into making the Thunderbirds what they are today.
Every officer has a specific and crucial role in the broad Thunderbirds mission, and traditionally, officers assigned to the team adopt their number as their unofficial “call sign.” Eight of the 12 officers assigned to the team are highly experienced fighter pilots. Thunderbirds 1-6 fly in the air show demonstrations; Thunderbird 7 is the operations officer; and Thunderbird 8 is the advance pilot and narrator, coordinating last-minute logistical details at show sites and lending his voice to describe the maneuvers during the show. Thunderbirds 9-12 are support officers who perform expert medical, administrative, maintenance and public affairs functions.
A Thunderbirds officer serves a two-year tour of duty. To ensure continuity and a smooth transition, three of the six demonstration pilots typically change each year. Each officer must submit comprehensive career records and letters of recommendation in their applications, which are screened by the Thunderbirds commander/leader and Air Force senior leaders. All candidates who become finalists in the hiring process then accompany the team on a deployment for familiarization and first-hand evaluation by team members. Prospective pilots are also screened for flying experience and ability.
Following the pilots’ semi-finalist interviews and deployment with the team, the Thunderbirds commander selects four to eight finalists to travel to the team’s hangar at Nellis Air Force Base, where each pilot candidate performs an evaluation flight in the backseat of an F-16D. These check flights consist of formation flying and some basic fighter maneuvers. The commander/leader evaluates the finalists and sends his recommendations through the chain of command, up to the commander of Air Combat Command, before final selections are made.
More than 120 enlisted personnel, representing nearly 30 career fields, form the backbone of the Thunderbirds. Enlisted team members are selected from units across the Air Force in a highly competitive hiring process. While each position has its various selection requirements, all eligible candidates must show a proven record of success and extensive job proficiency.
Enlisted Thunderbirds must have served in the Air Force for at least three years before they can be considered for the team. If they are hired, they will typically serve between three and four years as a Thunderbird.
Every new team member begins their Thunderbirds assignment in the “21-Day Program,” a rigorous orientation and training period. In those first three weeks, new members learn about life as a Thunderbird, the team’s long and detailed history, its heritage, mission, and squadron-specific policies. Newly assigned personnel are also charged with personally meeting every other team member, in order to learn the diverse backgrounds and job specialties that make up the Thunderbirds.
The program culminates in an oral exam where they are tested by their fellow Airmen on anything and everything related to the Thunderbirds. Once they complete the final test, the squadron commander rewards them with the Thunderbirds patch in a private ceremony attended only by current team members.
The Thunderbirds Show Line consists of 24 professionals in various aircraft maintenance specialties. They are selected before each demonstration season based on their job proficiency, dedication to duty, and overall attitude. For each Thunderbirds F-16 aircraft that travels, a crew chief and an assistant crew chief are assigned to it, ensuring their jet is always mission-ready.
Civilians are also vital members of the Thunderbirds team. The air show coordinator, Mr. Michael “Teddy” Rux, builds the show schedule and then works with each show site to develop an itinerary of events. The commander’s secretary, Ms. Maureen Walker, assists the commander and executive officer with their administrative duties, as well as curating the popular Thunderbirds museum. The unit program coordinator, Ms. Stephanie Kelly, manages several squadron support programs.