Mark Broadbent's 2010 blogGAR Entries

DEC 19 2010
Thunderbirds Are Go

So the rumours have been confirmed. The Thunderbirds are returning to Europe next summer. The US Air Force Aerial Demonstration Team announced its 2011 schedule on Monday at the International Council of Air Shows convention in Las Vegas, and confirmed that their six F-16s will be performing in seven countries in Europe.

Their schedule is as follows: Turkish Air Force 100th Anniversary Airshow, Izmir AB (4/5 June), Jesolo AB, Italy (11/12 June), Karup AB, Denmark (15 June), Turku AB, Finland (18/19 June), Graf-Ignatievo AB, Bulgaria (25 June), RAF Waddington International Airshow (1/2 July) and finally the Belgian Air Component 65th Anniversary, Koksijde (6/7 July).

The reaction from enthusiasts here in the UK to the news has been somewhat mixed, as when their last trip to Europe (in 2007) was announced. There are those very much looking forward to them, and those who believe – shall we put this politely – that the Thunderbirds are not as impressive as the teams we’re more familiar with here in Europe.

Let’s unpick the contrasting views. On the one hand, you can welcome them for providing a display that’s markedly different to those presented by the European national military teams. On the other, you can view their display format of four F-16s doing various formation passes interspersed with opposition flying by the two solos – with all six Fighting Falcons only joining together at the end – as lacking the zing, the artistry and the choreography of the European teams.

Me? It’ll be good to see them. They’re noisy and the sight of six customised F-16s in the air together performing a precision display generates a spectacle, which - let's be honest - is what airshows should be about more than anything. Personally, though, the European style of display with lots formation changes and complex choreographed manoeuvres (like those performed by the Red Arrows Enid and Gypo formations), and all delineated by the clever use of coloured smoke, will always appeal to me far more. Nevertheless they will complement the other teams and there will be some nice contrasts at Izmir and Waddington, where surely other major national aerobatic teams will also be present.

Of course, the differing types of aircraft mean the displays will inevitably be different. The F-16 obviously can’t be displayed in quite the same way as a Hawk, Alpha Jet, MB339 or Aviojet. But that’s not the only explanation. The Black Knights, the Royal Singapore Air Force team, also fly six F-16s and they don’t display their aircraft in the way the Thunderbirds do. They have a much more ‘European’ style, with the six aircraft performing together for the first half of the display and then only splitting off into two sections for the second. Search Youtube to check them out.

And that’s an interesting point. That the Thunderbirds display in the way they do shows there’s just a very different culture in the American military about the way aircraft should be demonstrated. As a friend of mine said recently, it’s perhaps best to think of the Thunderbirds as an airborne drill team. As the USAF’s main ambassadors they provide a power projection, a review of performance, precision and military efficiency. This much is repeatedly referenced in the narration accompanying the display. And in this context, you can understand why the Thunderbirds include the ground show as part of their routine. The vital point is that they are the USAF Demonstration - rather than Aerobatic - Team.

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