They’re an American icon, these ambassadors in blue. They’ve flown in all 50 states and over 60 foreign countries for an estimated 300 million plus spectators. Each year, a different team polishes their performance. Tens of thousands of men and women have been moved to serve their country after watching one of their demonstrations. And, the United States Air Force Thunderbirds have come to be recognized as the closest thing the air show business has to a guarantee of increased attendance.
But in May of 1953, these young junior officers were called upon to create a military jet demonstration team to represent the U.S. Air Force and the United States of America. They were given little guidance and even less time to prepare. Though they did not know it at the time, they were tasked with nothing less than the creation of an American tradition.
The six pilots came up with the Thunderbirds nickname for the Air Force’s new 3600th Air Demonstration Unit. One of them, Mac McCormick, sketched out the paint scheme that the team has used for nearly 50 years. They flew their F-84Gs through many of the same maneuvers that today’s Thunderbirds fly in F-16 Vipers. But, more than anything else, these six men established a tradition of excellence that has been the team’s hallmark for the last half century. The unit was declared operational on June 1, 1953, and flew its first show in front of 400,000 people in Dayton, Ohio on September fifth, sixth and seventh. By the end of the season, the team had flown 50 shows and firmly established itself as one of the world’s elite military demonstration units.
Though the team celebrated its 50th anniversary season in 2003, the six members of the original team have stayed close since that historic first season in 1953. When an ICAS staff member called Buck Patillo to discuss a logistical issue related to the induction banquet, Buck deferred to Dick Catledge as the team lead. ‘But you haven’t been on the team for 50 years,’ said the ICAS staff person. “Doesn’t matter,” Buck said. “He’s still the team lead.”