Air Force Association Frank Luke Chapter
AFA Frank Luke Chapter Arizona

Thunderbirds

They Began at Luke

Formation of the USAF Thunderbirds at Luke AFB

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force Demonstration Squadron Public Affairs Office

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force Demonstration Squadron Public Affairs Office

In 1947, while the jet age was still in its infancy, military aviation was hurtled into the future with the creation of the U.S. Air Force as a separate service.  Just six years later, on May 25, 1953, the Air Force’s official air demonstration team, designated the 3600th Air Demonstration Unit, was activated at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. The unit adopted the name “Thunderbirds,” influenced in part by the strong Native American culture and folklore from the southwestern United States where Luke Air Force Base is located.

Seven officers and 22 enlisted were selected for the first demonstration team.  Major Dick Catledge, a training squadron commander at Luke AFB, was chosen as the team’s leader.  Twins Bill and Buck Pattillo were selected and flew the left and right wing, respectively.  The Pattillos, both captains, were ideal choices as both had flown with a demonstration team for the previous three years.  For the difficult position of slot, the position sandwiched between both wingmen and behind the leader, Capt. Bob Kanaga was selected.  The spare pilot was Capt. Bob McCormick. Like the Pattillo brothers, he also had demonstration team experience.  First Lieutenant Aubry Brown served as the maintenance officer for the team.  Lieutenant Brown, along with Master Sgt. Earl Young, selected 21 enlisted men to help maintain the team’s aircraft.  Captain Bill Brock was the final officer selected for the team. He served as the information officer and team narrator.

From these humble beginnings and this group of men, the Air Force Thunderbird legend was born.

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force Demonstration Squadron Public Affairs Office

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force Demonstration Squadron Public Affairs Office

The F-84 was the first aircraft flown by the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, which operated F-84G Thunderjets from 1953 to 1955 Photo courtesy of US Air Force.

The F-84 was the first aircraft flown by the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, which operated F-84G Thunderjets from 1953 to 1955 Photo courtesy of US Air Force.

The team flew and maintained the F-84G Thunderjet.  The straight-wing configuration of the F-84G was considered well suited for aerobatic and demonstration maneuvers, though the aircraft could not exceed the speed of sound.

A series of formation aerobatics, lasting a total of 15 minutes, comprised the original demonstration. The “solo” was not originally incorporated into the demonstration, however, as the season progressed, the team took opportunities to perform “solo” maneuvers with a spare aircraft.

Always trying to display the most advanced fighters of the age, the swept-wing F-84F Thunderstreak became the team’s new aircraft in 1955.

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force Demonstration Squadron Public Affairs Office

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force Demonstration Squadron Public Affairs Office

After one season in the F-84F Thunderstreak, the Thunderbirds traded aircraft again and became the world’s first supersonic aerial demonstration team as it transitioned to the F-100C Super Sabre in 1956. That same year, to simplify logistics and maintenance for the aircraft, the Thunderbirds moved to Nellis AFB, Nev.  Although never a regular part of the show, the solo would fly supersonic at the request of an air show sponsor in 1956. Eventually, the Federal Aviation Administration banned all supersonic flight at air shows, and consequently, today’s sequence is entirely subsonic.

Nearly forgotten, the F-105B Thunderchief performed only six shows between April 26 and May 9, 1964. Following an unfortunate accident in the F-105, the team transitioned back to the Super Sabre following the incident and the F-100 remained with the team for nearly 13 years.

The Thunderbirds started the 1969 training season still in the F-100Ds, but in the spring of 1969, received the first of the new McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom IIs and began the team’s conversion.

The F-4’s conversion was the most extensive in the team’s history.  Among several other modifications, the paint scheme changed due to the variations in chemicals, which allows paint used on the F-4 to resist heat and friction at Mach II speeds.  As a result, the white paint base was developed and remains a part of today’s Thunderbird aircraft design.

In 1974, a spreading fuel crisis inspired a new aircraft for the team, the T-38A Talon. Although the Talon did not fulfill the Thunderbirds tradition of flying front-line jet fighters, it did demonstrate the capabilities of a prominent Air Force aircraft.

Remaining true to its character to showcase the latest advancement in America’s fighter technology, the first red, white and blue F-16A assigned to the Thunderbirds was delivered to Nellis AFB on Jun. 22, 1982.  Due to the conversion to the new aircraft, there were no official shows flown in 1982. The team flew the F-16 during the 1983 show season; making it the team’s ninth aircraft and once again returning to flying a front-line fighter.

In 1997, the Thunderbirds performed 57 demonstrations for more than 12 million people in the spirit and theme of the Air Force’s 50th anniversary. The year was memorialized with the Thunderbirds Delta pictured on the official Air Force 50th Anniversary U.S. Postal stamp. On Sept. 18, 1997, the United States Postal Service had official unveilings of the stamp in both the Pentagon and the Thunderbird hangar.

The Thunderbirds made television history in 2003 while celebrating their 50th Anniversary. The commander/leader started the Coca-Cola 600 by broadcasting live from Thunderbirds No. 1 as he said, “Gentlemen, start your engines.”

In 2007, the Thunderbirds visited Europe for the first time since Sept. 11, 2001 with the European Goodwill Tour. The trip included shows in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Italy, France, United Kingdom, and for the first time in Thunderbirds history, Ireland.

The team took its fifth Far East tour during the 2009 show season.  The team’s tour included visits to Hawaii, Australia, Thailand, Guam, Malaysia, Japan and Korea. The team performed more than 70 shows in 22 states and Puerto Rico in 2009.

The team’s 59th show season included stops in Alaska and Canada, plus dozens more. 

In 2013, the team flew only 2 demonstrations after leaders throughout the DOD were forced to make several tough, but necessary decisions to accommodate sequestration. The jets did not fly for the rest of that season, but despite flying limitations, the team exceled by interacting with more than 10,000 students and continuing to share the Air Force message.

Millions of people have witnessed the Thunderbirds demonstrations, and in turn, they’ve seen the pride, professionalism and dedication of hundreds of thousands of Airmen serving at home and abroad. Each year brings another opportunity for the team to represent those who deserve the most credit: the everyday, hard-working Airmen voluntarily serving America and defending freedom.

We would like to acknowledge that the information and photos presented are from afthunderbirds.com and is considered public information.  If you have any questions or comments about the information presented here, please forward them to us at USAFADS, 4445 Tyndall Ave, Nellis AFB, NV 89191 or email usaf.thunderbirds@us.af.mil


Major General Henry “Hank” Canterbury and Brigadier General Todd “Tales” Canterbury

Brigadier General Todd D. Canterbury entered the Air Force in May 1993 after graduating from Arizona State University ROTC in 1992 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Aeronautical Engineering Technology. Canterbury the current Commander, 56th Fighter Wing, Luke Air Force Base, Arizona was one of the Thunderbirds flight demonstration team from October 2001 through July 2005 as was his father, Major General Henry Canterbury (Ret.) during the 1965-1966 season.

Brigadier General Todd D. Canterbury, then Major, performs at an airshow.   Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force Demonstration Squadron Public Affairs Office

Brigadier General Todd D. Canterbury, then Major, performs at an airshow.

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force Demonstration Squadron Public Affairs Office

Father and son, Brigadier General Todd “Tales” Canterbury, then Colonel, shares his passion for flying with his father and mentor retired Major General Henry “Hank” Canterbury.

Father and son, Brigadier General Todd “Tales” Canterbury, then Colonel, shares his passion for flying with his father and mentor retired Major General Henry “Hank” Canterbury.


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Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force Demonstration Squadron Public Affairs Office

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force Demonstration Squadron Public Affairs Office


Brigadier General Todd D. Canterbury

Commander, 56th Fighter Wing, Luke Air Force Base

Brigadier General Todd D. Canterbury is the Commander, 56th Fighter Wing, Luke Air Force Base, Arizona. The wing's mission is to build the future of airpower and is leading the Air Force in developing Airmen and training fighter pilots. As part of Air Education and Training Command, and home to 30 squadrons with both F-16 and F-35A Lightning II aircraft, the 56th FW is the largest fighter wing in the Air Force and graduates more than 90 F-35 pilots, 300 F-16 pilots and 300 air control professionals annually. The wing is also responsible for the squadrons under the 54th Fighter Group, Holloman AFB, New Mexico, where F-16 training will move as Luke AFB transitions to become the sole pilot training center for the F-35, the Air Force's newest multi- role aircraft. Additionally, the 56th FW oversees the Gila Bend Air Force Auxiliary Field and is steward of the Barry M. Goldwater Range, a military training range spanning more than 1.7 million acres of Sonoran desert.

General Canterbury entered the Air Force in May 1993 after graduating from Arizona State University ROTC in 1992 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Aeronautical Engineering Technology.  General Canterbury’s assignments have been a mix of operational and training assignments. As an operational F-15E and MC-12 pilot he has logged over 650 combat hours and has participated in operations Northern Watch and Enduring Freedom. He has served as a weapons school Instructor, Thunderbird demonstration pilot, fighter squadron Commander, and wing Commander. His most recent assignment was as the Director of the F-35 Integration Office, Headquarters Air Force, the Pentagon, Arlington, Virginia. He is a graduate of the National War College and a Command Pilot with more than 4,100 hours in the F-35A, F-15E, F-16 and MC-12W aircraft.  


Major General Henry D. Canterbury

Major General Henry D. Canterbury is vice commander of 9th Air Force, Tactical Air Command, with headquarters at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C. 

General Canterbury was born in Huntsville, Ala., in 1937. He graduated in the first class of the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colo., in 1959 with a bachelor of science degree and earned a master's degree in systems management from the University of Southern California in 1972. The general completed Armed Forces Staff College in 1972 and National War College in 1976. 

Following his commissioning as a second lieutenant from the academy, he attended flight training at Spence Air Base, Ga., and Vance Air Force Base, Okla., and received his pilot's wings in July 1960. He then underwent F-100 combat crew training at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., and Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. In July 1961 General Canterbury began a three-year tour of duty at Spangdahlem Air Base, West Germany, as an F-100 and F-105 pilot with the 9th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 49th Tactical Fighter Wing. 

Returning to the United States in 1964, General Canterbury served with the 333rd Tactical Fighter Squadron at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., flying F-105s. The unit was assigned to the Tactical Air Warfare Center to test and evaluate tactics, procedures and equipment concepts. In December 1964 the general moved to Nellis to fly F-100s in the slot position with the Air Force aerial demonstration team, the Thunderbirds. During his two years on the team, he flew in more than 230 air shows around the world. 

En route to Southeast Asia he completed the Fighter Weapons School at Nellis in July 1967 and then served a 12-month tour of duty with the 3rd Tactical Fighter Wing at Bien Hoa Air Base, Republic of Vietnam. While there he was chief of the Weapons and Tactics Division, and flew 286 combat missions in F-100s. 

In July 1968 he was assigned to Headquarters U.S. Air Force, Washington, D.C., as an action officer with the deputy chief of staff for plans and operations, Directorate of Operations. He then moved to Lindsey Air Station, West Germany, as executive officer to the vice commander in chief of U.S. Air Forces in Europe. From September 1970 to June 1971 General Canterbury was executive officer to the commander of Air Training Command at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas. 

After graduation from the Armed Forces Staff College, Norfolk, Va., in June 1972, he served successively with the 31st Tactical Fighter Wing at Homestead Air Force Base, Fla., as a flight commander, operations officer and commander of the 308th Tactical Fighter Squadron. In 1972-1973 the squadron was on temporary duty for six months to Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, where he flew 90 more combat missions in F-4E's. 

In July 1976 the general completed the National War College, Fort Lesley J. McNair, Washington, D.C. He then returned to Air Force headquarters as assistant deputy director for combat readiness in the Directorate of Operations and Readiness. He became vice commander of the 4th Tactical Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., in June 1978 and, in July 1979, moved to MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., as commander of the 56th Tactical Fighter Wing. Under his command the wing converted to F-16s. 

General Canterbury transferred to Luke in January 1982 and took command of the 26th Air Division and 26th North American Aerospace Defense Command Region. The general became commander of Tactical Air Command's 832nd Air Division at Luke in May 1982. Appointed deputy commander in chief of U.S. Southern Command, Quarry Heights, and commander, U.S. Air Force Southern Air Division, Howard Air Force Base, Panama, in December 1984, he was responsible for U.S. Air Force matters in Latin America and was the Joint Chiefs of Staff representative to those Air Forces. He assumed his present duties in February 1987. 

A command pilot, General Canterbury has logged more than 5,000 flying hours in F-100s, F-105s, F-4s, F-16s, F-15s and A-10s. His military decorations and awards include the Defense Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit with oak leaf cluster, Distinguished Flying Cross with oak leaf cluster, Bronze Star Medal, Meritorious Service Medal and Air Medal with 20 oak leaf clusters. 

He was promoted to major general Aug. 1, 1985.