Also be sure to check out our video playlist from the event!
Also be sure to check out our video playlist from the event!
Following a crash which killed Thunderbird #4, the team has canceled some upcoming shows.
As of April 6th, the team’s performances at March AFB and Sun ‘n Fun have been canceled. The rest of the season schedule is still to be determined. Canceling shows while the team stands down to investigate the mishap and take time to grieve is standard protocol following crashes.
“Though we are deeply saddened by their loss of a valuable teammate, we totally understand and support the Thunderbirds’ decision. They have a requirement to take the necessary time to assess their current situation and plot a path forward, and we certainly respect their professionalism and diligence in ensuring their safe return to airshows,” said John Leenhouts, SUN ‘n FUN President/CEO.
Leenhouts also confirmed that this year’s daily airshows will include several activities to honor the service of Maj. Stephen Del Bagno, the fallen Thunderbird Number 4, and that a portion of the proceeds from this year’s event will be donated through the proper channels to support the Thunderbird family.
The Air Force’s Air Combat Command (ACC) and Sun ‘n Fun are working together to bring alternative USAF demonstrations to the event.
In a statement, Airshow Director Greg Gibson said “We appreciate ACC’s efforts on our behalf in such a short timeframe. They are working to make available a potential first-line combat aircraft to perform full aerial displays and/or engage in Heritage Flights with several of the numerous rare WWII fighters we have in attendance this year. We will make periodic announcements throughout the following days as these appearances are confirmed.”
Please visit our forums for further discussion on the crash and what it means for the airshow season.
UPDATE: The name of the pilot has been released.
ORIGINAL POST: An F-16 Fighting Falcon jet belonging to the US Air Force Thunderbirds crashed Wednesday inside the military’s Nevada Test and Training Range outside of Nellis AFB. The pilot of the jet was killed, however, the name has not been released yet pending next of kin notification. We expect to hear the name on Thursday. An investigation is being conducted into the cause of the mishap.
The team was performing an airshow practice routine near Creech AFB in Indian Springs, NV when the crash occurred. The Thunderbirds are based at nearby Nellis AFB, which sits on the outskirts of Las Vegas, NV. They opened their 2018 airshow season just a week and a half ago after canceling a couple of appearances to allow extra training time for their new commanding officer.
This is the first fatal crash for the team since 1982, when the four pilots in the diamond formation were killed after failing to recover from a loop. The famous incident became known as the “diamond crash”, and occurred in the same training area as today’s crash.
There have been more recent nonfatal crashes; in 2016 Thunderbird #6 crashed just short of the runway at Peterson AFB in Colorado after the team performed a flyover for the US Air Force Academy graduation ceremony. The pilot ejected safely, and the crash was eventually blamed on a faulty throttle component. The same day, Capt. Jeff Kuss of the US Navy Blue Angels demonstration team was killed in a crash while practicing for an airshow in Smyrna, TN.
In 2017, Thunderbird #8 skidded off a soaked runway while landing at the Dayton Airshow in Ohio. The flight was not part of the airshow; it was a “familiarization flight” with a member of the team’s maintenance crew in the back seat. Both pilot and passenger survived, though the pilot was injured.
There are few details available at this point, but we will update you once the pilot’s name is released. In the mean time, be sure to check our forums for further discussion on the crash and what it means for the airshow season. The team’s participation at the March Air Reserve Base “The March Field Air & Space Expo” has been cancelled.
The Melbourne Air and Space Show announced today that they have changed dates from March 17-18 to March 24-25. Organizers say that they decided to change dates in order to keep the US Air Force Thunderbirds as headliners.
The move is not entirely unexpected, as the two other airshows that originally planned to have the Thunderbirds in March also went on to change their plans.
First, Wings Over Atlanta at Dobbins ARB in Georgia canceled their March 24-25 show citing financial reasons. Then, the Luke Days airshow at Luke AFB in Arizona changed dates from March 10-11 to March 17-18 and picked up a commitment from the US Navy Blue Angels to replace the Thunderbirds as the headlining act.
This left Melbourne as the sole March appearance by the Thunderbirds, with an open weekend before and after. Now that they have slipped back to the original Wings Over Atlanta dates, they represent the first airshow of the Thunderbirds’ 2018 season.
All of this schedule churn is extremely unusual, but likely a result of the equally unusual dismissal and replacement of former Thunderbird #1, Lt. Col. Jason Heard after the 2017 season. The new Thunderbird #1, Lt. Col. Kevin Walsh, had not previously flown the demonstration and it is not surprising that he would require extra practice time to learn the profile. In fact, we speculated that this might end up happening at the time of the announcement. These schedule moves give the team an extra two weeks of training time, and by reconfirming their Melbourne appearance for March 24th, they seem confident that it will be enough.
US Air Force officials stated that “excess speed and insufficient stopping distance” on a soaked runway resulted in the crash of a two seat F-16 Fighting Falcon assigned to the USAF Thunderbirds in Dayton, Ohio this past June.
Capt. Erik “Speedy” Gonsalves, Thunderbird #8, was in command of the jet at the time of the incident. Sgt. Kenneth Cordova, a maintenance crew member, was also on board at the time. The two were on a “familiarization flight” over Dayton while the team was in town to perform at the 2017 Vectren Dayton Airshow.
Upon landing, the jet slid off the runway and into the grass, causing the aircraft to flip.
The report mentions that Gonsalves missed his first landing approach and that water had restricted the view of his head-up display or HUD. This forced him to rely solely on cockpit instruments. On the second approach, the report claims that Gonsalves focused more on the runway than his airspeed, contributing to the crash. The Thunderbird F-16 touched down with only 6,130 feet of runway left. Seven to eight thousand feet of runway is required to land safely on wet pavement. The aircraft exited the runway and came to rest upside down in the grass nearby. It was destroyed in the incident.
An audio recording between Air Traffic Control and Thunderbird 8, obtained by the Dayton Daily News last month, revealed that the pilot was warned of “extreme precipitation” in the area and that ATC told him he was “flying at your own risk.”
In a statement, Air Combat Command spokeswoman Maj. Malinda Singleton said “Capt. Gonsalves is traveling with the team and narrating shows, but he is not medically cleared to fly at this time.”
The USAF Thunderbirds honored one of their own during a dedication ceremony in Tuskegee, Alabama.
Captain Joseph N. “Pete” Peterson graduated from Tuskegee Public School in 1967. It was during his high school years when he developed an interest in flying and started taking lessons. After graduation, he attended Auburn University and participated in the school’s ROTC program. On August 27th, 1971, he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Air Force. During his flying career, he served in Korea flying the F-4E Phantom.
In 1981, Capt. Peterson joined the Thunderbirds. As only the second African-American pilot to join the team, he broke barriers and continued to change the way things were done. Sadly, he was one of the four pilots killed in the infamous “Diamond Crash” in 1982.
A 10.5 mile portion of State Road 199 in Tuskegee, AL changed names to honor Peterson. The Captain Joseph “Pete” Peterson Memorial Boulevard honors the legacy that Peterson left. The road, near Morton Field Airport, connects two former Tuskegee airfields where black pilots trained in the days when training was segregated.
In a post on their Facebook page, the USAF Thunderbirds said that “as a Thunderbird, Pete exemplified everything we are as Airmen then and today — Bold, Courageous, and always #BreakingBarriers”
The six F-16 fighting falcons performed a flyover during the ceremony.
Photos courtesy of the USAF Thunderbirds
The United States Air Force Thunderbirds recently wrapped up back-to-back weekends in the state of Colorado, where they performed at the Pikes Peak Regional Airshow on September 23rd and 24th and the Grand Junction Airshow on September 30th and October 1st. During this stretch, we were able to capture a special look at some of the logistics involved in the teams travels and their procedures to ensure a perfect performance.
The Thunderbirds begin each show week on Wednesday at their home, Nellis AFB. Typically, Thunderbird #7 or #8 departs to the next show site to meet with airshow organizers to ensure everything is set up for the teams arrival. This includes things like transportation, lodging, temporary flight restrictions, and ramp security. Meanwhile, the rest of the crew pack up their equipment and prepare it for transport.
On Thursday, roughly one hour ahead of the demonstration pilots, the enlisted personnel and support officers arrive via C-17 or C-130 (“Thunderbird 14”). Once on the ground, they begin preparing for the upcoming airshow. Support crews unload the communication and maintenance trailers, spare equipment, luggage of all members traveling, and even a spare Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-229 engine.
Following the unloading of equipment and crew, flight operations start with the overhead arrival of Thunderbirds 1-6. Once at the show site the demonstration pilots conduct a survey of the area. This provides them with an opportunity to see the show lines, the crowd lines, and find points of reference on the ground. It’s really just an opportunity to familiarize themselves with the area so that they can fly a safe and well-executed show.
After all aircraft, equipment, and personnel are on the ground the jets are thoroughly checked for maintenance complications by the support personal while the officers meet with members of the media for plane-side interviews to help promote the event. This is a great way for local news channels to get people interested in the airshow. While this is taking place, Thunderbird #7 or #8 are in a pre-flight briefing with a lucky member of the media who was pre-selected to go up for a media ride and represent their news station. The media ride takes place in one of the team’s two-seat F-16D’s, which also serve as backup jets for the performances. During the flight, the pilot demonstrates maneuvers from the show routine to the media representative in the back seat.
Friday begins early in the morning, with most of the team participating in school visits, children’s hospital visits, and other such recruiting or community outreach opportunities. At the same time, aircraft specialists are at the airfield preparing the F-16’s for the afternoon practice demonstration. The Friday practice allows for the Thunderbirds to adjust for any complications or abnormalities they may have during the demonstration, whether it be timing, maneuvers, show lines, or narration. Once the afternoon rolls around it’s all hands on deck preparing for the practice show as if it were the real deal. In many ways it actually is the same, as the Thunderbirds and airshow organizers often invite distinguished guests and members of the media to the Friday show to hopefully give one last push to bring in the crowds on Saturday and Sunday.
The Friday practice in Grand Junction actually provided a unique opportunity to witness a Thunderbird mission that is rarely seen. During the performance, the demonstration pilots were shadowed by Thunderbird #7 Lt. Col Kevin “Lowen” Walsh flying a photo chase mission with a back seat photographer from the Thunderbirds Public Affairs Office. This is how the team gets amazing photos and videos of the diamond formation performing aerobatics, and it is not a common sight.
Though the practice may have looked flawless to any member of the general public, a rigorous debrief begins immediately afterward where the officers review ground recordings, HUD tapes, and other on-board footage recorded during the show. This allows them to grade themselves on their overall performance and tells them what they can clean up, improve on, and make better for Saturday and Sunday.
Saturday and Sunday begins, as we all know, with an early morning opening of the airshow gates, food, drinks, and hours family entertainment while the other airshow performers fly. During this time the Thunderbirds are preparing for their flight with a briefing, preflight checks, aircraft pushbacks, and communications checks. Everything funnels into the ability to provide the grand finale at the end of the day, thrilling thousands of excited fans.
Once the weekend is over the cycle resets. The team loads up to fly back to Nellis for a short bit of rest before starting again. It’s a constant fast-paced work environment that is often tasking on the team members and their families, but the rewards are extraordinary and every member of the team is always “happy to be here.”
Article and photos by Anthony Cornelius
The ongoing Patrouille de France North American Tour is not the only exciting international appearance in North America this season! The Turkish Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon demonstration, known as SOLOTURK, will reportedly be traveling to the airshow in London, Ontario this September for one of just six appearances outside of Turkey. The other scheduled shows are listed on our forums.
The team typically performs a very aggressive demonstration utilizing smokewinders and a spectacularly painted black, silver, and gold aircraft. This same team was scheduled to perform at the NAF El Centro show last year, but the plans eventually fell through. Hopefully London will fare better!
From the SOLOTURK website:
SOLOTURK is a demonstration team which presents the capability of the modern and high-performance F-16 aircraft possessed by Turkish Air Force and the high level of skill and knowledge necessary for its use to the audience as a show. The demonstration flights are realized with a solo F-16 C Block-40 aircraft. White-colored smoke is released from the smoke devices which are placed on the edges of both wings during the show. No modifications have been made on the aircraft; it can be planned for any mission. Besides the demonstration flights, the SOLOTURK pilots continue their combat training.
London also announced that a KC-30 of the Royal Australian Air Force will be in attendance.
Photos courtesy SoloTurk website
This past week, the year’s second Red Flag Exercise, known as Red Flag 17-2, came to a close after two intense weeks of training consisting of air to air, air to ground, aerial refueling, and overwatch missions. Missions were flown during the afternoons and evenings, resulting in two mass launches and two mass recoveries of aircraft each day, five days a week.
Red Flag happens four times a year, hosting the world’s elite fighter squadrons from the US Air Force, Navy, Marines, Air National Guard, NATO, and other allied nations. These groups gather to take part in ultra-realistic simulated aerial war games, which all take place at the Nevada Test and Training Range.
One participating aircraft type that really stood out from the crowd was the EA-6B Prowler operated by the US Marine Corps. This will be marked as the last Red Flag participation from any EA-6B squadron, as VMAQ-4 is set to deactivate. The squadron will be retiring its aging Prowler fleet this June, marking the end of an era for a distinguished airframe.
The amount of time and effort that goes into creating these highly realistic combat environments is unprecedented. Even when the jets are not flying, the maintainers are hard at work on the line keeping the jets ready for the next sortie. While the maintainers and pilots do their tasks, the unsung warriors are the dozens of Red Flag mission organizers that help thoroughly brief and debrief hundreds of pilots from the 15 visiting fighter and support squadrons:
Royal Netherlands Air Force
- F-16 Fighting Falcon
Spanje (Spanish Air Force)
- ALA 111 – Eurofighter EF-2000
- ALA 312 – KC-130H Hercules
Air National Guard
- 100th FS – F-16 Fighting Falcon
- 120th FS – F-16C Fighting Falcon
- 149th AVN – UH-60 Blackhawk
US Air Force – Europe
- 493d FS – F-15C/D Eagle
US Air Force
- 16th ACCS – E-8C Joint STARS
- 55th FS – F-16CJ Fighting Falcon
- 79th RQS – HC-130 Hercules/HH-60 Blackhawk
- 960th AACS – E-3 Sentry
- 91st ARS – KC-135 Stratotanker
- HSC-21 – MH-60S Seahawk
- VAW-117 – E-2C Hawkeye
US Marine Corps
- VMAQ-4 – EA-6B Prowler
Beyond the squadrons’ jet fuel-driven training, exercises also draw crowds of a different breed. Hundreds of aviation photographers travel to Nellis each Red Flag for the opportunity to photograph aircraft from squadrons they may never have the chance to see again. Squadrons such as the Spanish, Dutch, and the Lakenheath-based USAFE F-15C/Ds were on every photographer’s must-shoot list. Nothing provides a better opportunity for good photos than the almost always clear Vegas skies mixed with perfect late afternoon light.
Though 17-2 has come to a close, photographers should mark their calendars as Nellis AFB will be hosting two more Red Flag exercises during the 2017 calendar year; the first taking place mid-July (17-3), and the second in mid-August (17-4).
– Anthony Cornelius