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.
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Photo courtesy: afthunderbirds.com