The horror, the grisliest of times, was six years ago. It seemed then that the Thunderbirds were cursed, that maybe the government of the United States of America, linchpin of NATO, SEATO and the free world, should get out of the business of risking the lives of its pilots (and spending the $1 million it costs to train each of those sophisticated devices) simply to amuse spectators at air shows.
Nick Hauck was the first to go in this period, flying position Number Six, opposing solo, at Ogden, Utah, on Saturday, May 9, 1981. Captain Hauck was coming in on a high-low pass, slow and low, and evidently, when he realized he was too far ahead on the count and the lead solo would pass him way off show center, he tried to decelerate and went too far back and fell to earth in an awful burst of hellfire.
The next day was Mother's Day, and the day after that the Thunderbirds were to go to California to tape an appearance on Fantasy Island. D.L. Smith was the leader then, the Thunderbird commander, the Boss, flying Number One, diamond point, and most people thought the Thunderbirds would surely cancel their TV spot, but Colonel Smith decided they would keep the date and then attend the funeral. It was like a kid who had fallen off his bicycle. They had to get right back on.
Then, four months later, D.L. himself was killed. He was leaving for Texas after three shows in Cleveland. He was flying Number One this trip, as usual, and had his crew chief with him. As soon as they took off, the T-38 sucked sea gulls into both jets and, almost immediately, Colonel Smith knew the engines were kaput. "Bail out, bail out," he screamed, and the sergeant punched out, sending the canopy, then himself, clear. He hit the ground hard, but safely.
August 2, 1987
The Boss's chute malfunctioned. They always say that in the Thunderbirds, indeed, in all the services. Malfunctioned. What kind of a stupid word is that? It's almost as if they can't bring themselves to say it broke. Something went wrong. The son of a bitch didn't work right, and the Boss's body shattered on the rocks by Lake Erie.
Capt. Pete Peterson, Number Three, who flew right wing to D.L., said, "But for the grace of God, it could be any one of us, anytime, anywhere."
So the Thunderbirds went on. Maj. Norm Lowry had already been tagged to succeed Colonel Smith, and he came in early and assumed command. Capt. Willie Mays, who had been the narrator in '81, Number Eight, took his famous name and moved up to Two, left wing, across from Peterson. Hoss Jones, who has a famous brother, Bert Jones, the quarterback, was chosen to fly the other solo across from Dale Cooke. Mark Melancon was the other newcomer, and Lowry put him in the slot of the diamond, on the leader's tail. The Thunderbirds would go for a 30th year. "We have a mission," Captain Mays said.
Major Lowry was a godsend. He was instantly admired, for he had a special gentleness no one had ever seen in a Boss before. All through the fall and into the winter of '82, at their home at Nellis Air Force Base, outside Las Vegas, Lowry led the Thunderbirds through practice, readying them for their return to the show circuit in March.
On Saturday, Jan. 16, he brought his young son, Jason, out to the squadron headquarters. Jason was only 11 at the time, and he was worried for his dad. After all, his father's predecessor had been killed on the job, and they'd lost a solo just before that. In 28 years, 16 Thunderbirds had bought the farm. But Major Lowry took his boy around and reassured him that it wasn't all that risky.
Monday morning the solos, Cooke and Jones, went up first and practiced at the usual place, about 40 miles away, up over the auxiliary field at Indian Springs. They were on their way back to Nellis when they passed the diamond going out—Lowry in the lead, Peterson and Mays on the wings, Melancon in the slot. The solos and the diamond could see each other well, for it was a clear desert sky's day, and they exchanged greetings on their radios.
At Indian Springs, the diamond moved out of the usual formation to practice in the line abreast, all three dressed on the leader, Four and Two to his left, Three to his right. At all times in the diamond, the other three pilots key off One. "The Boss is my life," says Dave Robinson, who flies Two now. "He's my world—whether I'm right-side up, upside down. It makes no difference where the ground is because my eyes are on the leader." And in line abreast this is even more accentuated, because the three captains are all looking to the side at the leader—actually focusing even a tiny bit behind the cockpit—to the exclusion of anything else.
From low, Melancon, Peterson, Lowry and Mays went into the Line Abreast Loop, pulling 3.7 g's, shooting up to the top in four seconds, moving at 390 knots (about 450 mph). At the apex of the loop—the float, they call it—all four were upside down and more or less suspended, crawling at 140 knots. Then, with a rush, they dove.
Just past the float, Lowry pulled back on the stick to make the aircraft turn faster. The other three pilots were glued on him, waiting to see One turn under, so they could respond in unison and come out of the loop in formation.
But the Boss's stick didn't work. He—any fighter pilot—must have known in an instant that it wasn't responding. A stick seems to be attached to the arm, more flesh and blood than mechanical device. The Boss pulled harder. The T-38 didn't turn. It wasn't going to. There was a malfunction. Some tiny piece of metal had come loose and jammed what is known as the horizontal stabilizer load relief cylinder.
The three other pilots kept their eyes on the Boss, as they are trained to.
Instinctively, Lowry brought his other arm, the left one, over and grabbed the stick with all his might, both hands. Possibly he could have saved the others if, in that instant, he could have punched the radio button with his left hand and shouted a warning. But no man could react that quickly. So the diamond, line abreast, dove almost straight down toward earth.
Past 800 feet, going almost 500 miles per hour, nothing could save it. Reflexively, although surely knowing it was hopeless, the Boss strained, pulling on his stick as hard as he could. It never did respond. The diamond had 3.8 seconds left in the air.
The three other pilots never had an inkling. The Boss is my life, my world. They hit in formation, everybody doing his job. They didn't malfunction. There were four distinct crashes at Indian Springs, but only one explosion anyone could hear. It rocked the land. The largest piece that remained was the size of a bale of hay.
The solos had landed back at Nellis. Hoss Jones had saluted his crew, shaken their hands, walked over to the hangar. He was going down the corridor past the Boss's office when someone, crying, said, "Hoss, the diamond took it in."
Immediately, Hoss Jones got in his car and rushed out to see Mrs. Melancon. He and Mark had come on the team together, the last two. The Boss had made the choice: Hoss for solo, Mark for slot. That was the only reason Captain Jones was going out to see Captain Melancon's widow instead of Captain Melancon going out to see Captain Jones's widow.
Hoss doesn't flinch when he talks about it now. "It's just a cost of doing business, and fighter pilots understand that," he said. And, indeed, almost to the minute he spoke, across the country in North Carolina, two Air Force pilots went down to their deaths on a training mission. "Listen," Hoss said, "those guys in the diamond loved what they were doing, and if they were back here now, they'd be doing it today." He said they had him flying a desk temporarily, a staff job at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, and he was driving his wife crazy, but, with luck, he would have a jet to drive again in another few months and be back in the air, at Mach or better.
Hoss stayed on when the Thunderbirds were re-formed the next year, 1983. The Air Force put them in new models, F-16s, and the Pentagon allowed them—and their Navy cousins, the Blue Angels—to stay in show business. You can't say they're indestructible. They destruct all the time. But, as the pilots well know, all the parts are replaceable, and the Thunderbirds are still around, America the Beautiful's Team, flying some 75 shows every year, hitting all 50 states at least every other year, bringing people into the Air Force, keeping people in the Air Force, showing the flag, making Americans proud to be Americans and turning airplanes into Disney characters. Even during the fuel crisis and at the height of the antiwar demonstrations, when cities burned, campuses raged and presidents were toppled, the Thunderbirds were damn near inviolate.
And now, for goodness' sake, at a time when patriotism is in fashion (and crew cuts, too), the Thunderbirds are in their glory more than ever. They fly over all of us, grown-up and child, man and woman, black and white, Fundamentalist and Secular Humanist. In 2,800 shows these past 34 years, they have been watched by something approaching a quarter of a billion human beings, which is more people than have witnessed any other team, if you will, in that time. Plus, the team's stars, sans agents, get only about 40 grand a year, unfailingly talk to the press, dispense autographs, pet dogs, visit the sick and the shut-in, help old ladies across the street and, on the spur of almost any moment, will widen an eye, angle a smile and flip a thumbs-up.
Joe Bulmer, Three, right wing, from Clifton Park, N.Y., walks into a hospital room in Montgomery, Ala., in his snappy sky-blue flight suit. His escorts, Staff Sgt. Mark Nuernberg of Milwaukee and Sgt. Darren Pilawski of Tampa, carry the Thunderbird pamphlets. In their Thunderbird dark blues, which look black, just like the alleged blue on the Thunderbird planes, the enlisted men are every bit as handsome as the officers. Each man wears the same huge Thunderbird patch over his heart and the Thunderbird dickey (which is called a fram) at his throat. "Hi," Three says, "I'm Joe." Not Captain Bulmer. Just Joe.
The Thunderbird world is different. Just as the show takes on the nature of a religious service, so does daily life swing between the ultimate of military spit and polish and the easy camaraderie of an athletic squad. When a Thunderbird officer meets a Thunderbird NCO they exchange the most precise salute, as directed, then shake hands as colleagues. When outsiders aren't around, the enlisted men cheekily refer to the officers simply by their numbers. "Hi, Two." "What's up, Five?" It's weird. Thunderbird personnel don't even seem to lug clipboards about, like everywhere else in the U.S. military. It's really weird.
All of the Thunderbirds, officers and NCOs, share one understanding—the reality that they are living a dream that must soon end. All have volunteered and won selection to what is officially the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron (which is always referred to by its members as a "team," just as the members of sports teams like to call themselves "families"), but officers and NCOs alike know that their Brigadoon will disappear after the prescribed two years, and they must then return to what the enlisted men sadly refer to as "the green world."
Many of the pilots have even more difficult reentry problems than the rest of the team, because although they keep telling themselves that it is illusory, that they're just filling a uniform that operates a $16 million machine, they are everywhere, every day, idolized and glorified. "When I left, I had to reassemble myself," is the way it's put by Col. Lloyd (Fig) Newton, the team's first black pilot, who flew for the Thunderbirds in the mid-'70s.
Says Four, the slot, Capt. Lance Undhjem, from Twin Falls, Idaho, "The way I see this job is, I'm just imitating somebody famous. It's not like I'm going to be a has-been when I go back to a fighter-weapons squadron. Nobody knows who I am as soon as I take this patch off now. I'm a has-been part of every day."
But for the rest of the day the high isn't just up in the F-16. People are always telling the Thunderbirds that they personify what's good about America, about democracy. For heaven's sake, people are always even telling the Thunderbirds they're what's good about tax dollars.
Three turns into the next hospital room. The patient's wife swoons. "Why, you're as pretty on the ground as you are in the air," she says.
Three blushes and ducks his head. "Hi, I'm Joe," he says to the patient, an old man.
The old man says, "Your life's dedicated to making people happy, isn't it?"
Three ducks his head again and bids the sergeants to hand him some Thunderbird pamphlets, so he can autograph them. The patient also wants Sergeant Nuernberg's and Sergeant Pilawski's autographs. Even the Thunderbird NCOs imitate famous people.
The show that they all work together takes up to three quarters of an hour, depending on the weather, which determines whether the Boss will order a high show, low show or flat show. The full program always lasts a lot longer, though, because on the ground there is a lot of carrying-on—marching to and fro and parade rest, saluting and handshaking, putting on and taking off caps and helmets and aviator glasses, and straightening out frams. A whole lot of straightening out frams. The Thunder-birds also do a team squat, by the numbers, for photographers. And then engines boom, canopies come down in succession, thumbs go up, and the red-white-and-black jets roll off. And everything (except perhaps the postshow autographing) is videotaped and graded by Seven, Maj. B.J. Java of Frederic, Wis., the logistics officer, or "loggie." Even more than football coaches, Thunderbirds are loath to speculate on any performance until they have seen the films.
The show's narrator is Eight, Capt. Bert Nelson of West Hartford, Conn. Often, in the past, after a year of narrating, the Voice would move up into one of the regular flying spots (there are no substitutes for the pilots), and while that tradition fell by the wayside a few years ago, Eight received permission to apply for next year's team, and tried out along with the other "appies"—which is what applicants are called when the NCOs aren't putting them down as "flattop jocks."
Eight makes sure to emphasize during his show spiel (just as all the Thunderbird p.r. literature does) that the entire performance is based strictly on maneuvers that any fighter pilot learns in the normal course of training. No doubt this is technically true but, realistically, a Thunderbird show relates to typical training in the same way, say, that a Phyllis Diller routine actually describes married life with Fang.
But it seems important to the Thunderbirds to make a big deal out of this; evidently it placates congressmen who don't think the Air Force should be in show biz. So, be a good American and go along with the con. Also, don't ever call the Bomb Burst Crossover, in which four of the F-16s fly directly at one another at an ungodly speed—don't ever call this a stunt. It is a maneuver. And, of course, if it ever doesn't work, it will be a malfunction of the maneuver.
A typical Thunderbird show opens with the diamond passing in review—the Banana, as it is known. "Excellent for photographs," Eight announces, as he moves into his narration—playing a lot of movie themes, like Star Wars and Chariots of Fire for background as the Knife-Edge Pass, Calypso Pass, Crossover Break, Five Card Loop, Wing Rock-and-Roll, Cuban Eight, Corkscrew and what-have-you progress. The crowd cranes its collective neck. It's always a big hit when the spectators watch Six go off right, doing aileron rolls, while the lead solo, Five, sneaks in from the left, treetop low, afterburner wide open. Zooom! Booom! It scares the hell out of everybody, but Eight is quick to announce that this isn't just a cheap act, that all pilots in training learn this because it's a tactical maneuver. Whew! fooled those congressmen again.
In almost all their routines, the F-16s trail smoke, and this is very effective, vital to the whole spectacle. When the planes finish a maneuver and cut smoke, in an eerie way it looks as if they have been unhooked in the sky.
"They represent the spirit of our American heritage!" Eight shouts to the crowd as all six Thunderbirds do a Delta Roll and a Clover Loop. "Like a giant waterfall cascading from the sky," as Eight puts it—and rather nicely, too. Lots of smoke. And now: Barrel Rolls! The Diamond Roll! Bomb Bursts! The Five Card Loop! The Catch-Up! Pitch-Ups! Finally, the Boss leads the team down as Eight makes sure to guarantee the crowd that this wasn't just a bunch of fun stuff, that it was all "a key to our deterrent position!" Yes, sir, just wait'll we throw a Clover Loop at those dumb Russkies.
The six Thunderbirds taxi in and line up on an angle—what's called the show park. It looks fabulous. Then they blow smoke one more time and start taking off their helmets and putting on their overseas caps and aviator glasses and (of course) straightening out their frams. Everything is relative. Generally speaking, the NCOs take all the loops and upside-down stuff for granted. To the enlisted Thunderbirds, a flattop jock has arrived as a genuine Thunderbird pilot—"Hi, Hero"—only when he can show-park just right.
Like beings from the planet Ergon 3 in Star Trek, Thunderbird pilots reproduce themselves. They not only test the appies and make recommendations (which are invariably acted upon favorably by higher-ups), but they also encourage the right sorts they know to send in rèsumès, their "packages." For example, Three taught Four how to fly T-38s, and when Four, the pupil, became a Thunderbird, he encouraged his old teacher to try it. Two—Dave Robinson of Fairfield, Conn.—just missed the cut two years ago, when Lance Undhjem and Tom Weiler, Five, of Corvallis, Ore., were chosen, but Robinson was urged to apply the next year, and then he made it. This year, for the first time, one of the appies is a legacy. Capt. Scott Pattillo's father flew one wing in the first diamond, his uncle the other wing.
Unlike the Blue Angels, who tend to be dismissed in the Navy as "throttle jockeys"—specialist hot dogs with a limited long-term Naval future—Thunderbird pilots fare well in their careers. Of the 100 or so pilots who have flown for the team, 20 have made general officer, a high rate indeed.
The pilots are genuinely, almost digustingly, humble. "A hundred guys could do this job as well as I do," says Four. "Some of the NCOs are really better Thunderbirds than I am, because they do better at their job than I do at mine." All the pilots go far out of their way to praise their crews, rather like running backs who buy rings and watches for their offensive linemen. No show in 34 years has ever been scrubbed for maintenance reasons, and every F-16 displays not only the pilot's name but also the crew chief's. The Thunderbirds pride themselves on the fact that a pilot never checks out his craft before entering the cockpit but, with implicit faith in his crew, just pops in when it's time to fly. Six's wife sends "CARE packages" of food to her husband's crew—Staff Sgts. Larry Chandler and Chris Stevens—when they're on the road, or mails them postcards, thanking them "for taking such good care of my husband."
If Norman Rockwell had painted the Thunderbird pilots, he would have depicted a little boy in a small town in 1962, looking up wistfully at an F-100C Super Sabre streaking overhead. It's funny. In another time, little boys in small towns who cocked their heads when they heard the train whistle blow wanted to go wherever that train was heading. But little boys who look up at planes don't care where the planes are going; they just want to fly planes themselves. All the Thunderbird pilots had an itch to fly since childhood; three of the six had fathers who were pilots and five of the six wear Air Force Academy rings.
Obviously, there are some marginal differences, in size and personality and temperament. Right up till his junior year at the Academy, Two seriously considered becoming an Air Force doctor, and Five went to Oregon State on a golf scholarship, intent on joining the PGA Tour. Ultimately, though, all succumbed to the air, and all were careful to marry women who understood they would always play second fiddle to the cockpit. The wife of Six, K.C. Schow of Willmar, Minn., met the first four of this year's applicants. She just shook her head at her husband over the similarity of the appies and pantomimed nipping a coin.
Whatever their slight differences, the five younger pilots are all what used to be known as "personality kids." They are confident of themselves as well as their skills: outgoing, optimistic, garrulous, thumbs-up people. After all, notwithstanding their flying ability, they are finally chosen for their public relations qualities. It is no coincidence that, year in and year out, golf is the Thunderbird game. It is not just that the hand-eye coordination of the cockpit translates well to the links, either. More than that, as the Thunderbirds admit, golf is the most social of games, and playing 18 holes with movers and shakers lets them apply more Air Force p.r.
Yet while the five younger pilots, who pretty much select themselves, are of a type, the Boss, who is chosen strictly by higher-ups, is a different sort of fellow altogether. The incumbent One, Lieut. Col. Roger Riggs of Louisville, is idolized by his men for his flying skills and his humanity and managerial qualities, but unlike his younger colleagues—Riggs is almost 40, the others barely 30—One is shy and withdrawn, careful, an indifferent speaker.
All of the pilots are married—the case since 1974. It's easier to become a black manager in major league baseball than it is to become a bachelor Thunderbird pilot. The Air Force wants a solid, homey image for its stars. Also, no mustaches. Thunderbirds, officers and NCOs alike, are not permitted in saloons after 9 p.m. if they are wearing any identifying insignia, and the pilots are not to be seen alone in the company of females other than their wives—just to make sure nobody gets the wrong impression. In this regard, and many others, gender aside, Thunderbird pilots much resemble Miss America candidates.
The Thunderbirds go out of their way to credit their wives even more than they lavish praise on their crews. The '82 tragedy made even the most fatalistic wives think twice, but most of them knew what they were getting into when they married fighter pilots, and, as Two says, "After that accident my wife said no way in hell I could apply for the Thunderbirds, but finally she gave in because she didn't want to be with me when I was 60 years old and regretting that I hadn't done it." Mostly, in fact, the issue is not danger, but rather the sacrifice the wife must make, because the Thunderbirds are on the road something like 200 days a year. Here is a conversation between Four and his wife:
FOUR: Do you worry about me up there, Honey?
MRS. FOUR: No.
FOUR: Not at all?
MRS. FOUR: No. I don't even think about it.
FOUR: Gee, I wish you'd worry about me just a little bit.
MRS. FOUR: (shrugs)
Not surprisingly, there is sort of a fraternity atmosphere among the flyboys. They snicker some that their physician, Thunderdoc, is a female Air Force captain, and they call the Blue Angels "the Navy's bowling team." If any member of the team ever says "dead bug" in a bar, all the others drop to the floor instantly, the last one down being obliged to buy the next round. In fact, students of the Thunderbirds believe they have become even more homogenized since the diamond crashed and that Thunderbird pilots (at least while they're wearing the fram) are evidently among the best behaved of all fighter pilots.
Says Maureen Dolan, who has served as secretary for the various Bosses for the last decade: "Go to any officers' bar where the fighter pilots hang out. They all get a drink and start talking with their hands, because that's the only way they can explain maneuvers. Then, after a few drinks, they start talking about other things. That's a good time to leave. Then they hang from the rafters."
The Thunderbirds' natural rivals, the Blue Angels, have always had the wilder, playboy reputation. After all, they were named for a popular New York supper club, while the Thunderbirds were named for some mythical Indian creature, which was powerful and legendary and all that, but not known to be a whole lot of fun. Even the Air Force generally concedes that the Blue Angels' show is flashier and more sensational—but says it is also more dangerous. "It's that aircraft-carrier mentality," a bird colonel in the Pentagon explains, a bit snippily.
Still, the Blues (it's always the Blues—you didn't think it would be the Angels, did you?) and the Thunderbirds (never anything but the Thunderbirds—T-Birds are automobiles, and Birds are Orioles, Cardinals, Blue Jays, Eagles or Falcons) have much in common. Fighter pilots, whatever their branch of service (or even their nationality, for that matter) much more resemble one another than they do anyone else—even, say, transport pilots working next hangar over.
Still, it continues to bug the Air Force that with the Blues, the Navy stole their thunder, as it were, by starting their air-demo show first. The Navy came up with the idea in 1946, mainly to hype reenlistments. The most popular stunt—uh, maneuver—in the original show was when three Blues in V-formation chased a Japanese Zero and pretended to shoot it down. With ersatz smoke and flames, the Zero appeared to crash behind some trees near show center. Lieut. Comdr. Roy M. (Butch) Voris, a World War II ace who organized the Blues, later sadly reminisced, "Then we got friendly with the Japanese and had to junk that part of the routine."
It was 1953 before the Air Force got into the air-show business. By then, American pilots were in Korea going up against MIGs, lighter, faster and more mobile aircraft than anything the U.S. had, and the Yanks compensated for that inferiority with teamwork. It was time to show the taxpayers the diamond.
By now, on the 40th anniversary of the Air Force, the Thunderbirds may have been watched by more people than the Blues have, and although the Navy team remains more famous at home, the Air Force team is far better known abroad. In fact, their planes' fuselages display the flags of all the nations where the Thunderbirds have appeared, and so, wherever they go—read this and weep, Jesse Helms—the F-16s prominently show the colors of Cuba and Libya.
The two air-demo teams still share some coordination and are booked by one office of the Department of Defense. The Thunderbirds play 60% of their dates at military installations, but with only a token $3,000 fee, they're a steal for any private air show that lands them. The Thunderbirds really do come cheap for everybody: The whole operation is budgeted for only $1.8 million annually, and, to placate those captious congressmen, the Thunderbirds assure us that in the event of war, it would take only three days to paint camouflage on the red-white-and-black planes and to replace the smoke canisters with guns.
The pilots can't quite decide how they feel about this prospect—as, indeed, honest military men everywhere are always confounded by the fact that they're practicing to be the best at something they're theoretically not supposed to ever want to do. Among the Thunderbird pilots, only the Boss has flown combat—140 missions over Vietnam. Three probably explains the quandary best: "This would be hard to explain to a wife," he says, "because you never want war to happen...but you also always wonder how good you are."
Yet it is a larger truth that flying for the Thunderbirds is love enough by itself. Regularly, they favorably compare piloting F-16s to sex, and while this proves conclusively that Thunderbird pilots know more about flying than the rest of us do, there is, indisputably, something sensual, even primeval, about running $16 million worth of equipment on high, dodging clouds at several hundred miles per hour. Eight says, "The two songs I always have in my mind when I'm flying are, 'I've looked at life from both sides now,' and 'If they could see me now/That little gang of mine.' "
The loops and upside-down and sideways stuff, flying straight up as the g's press your innards, all those spectacular maneuvers, they're fun and daring. But all that is nothing beside the first moment you level off and tool along, the whole blue heaven visible through the clear canopy—nothing like that little peek we get out of the double-strength peephole of commercial planes—only sky, all around, blue, and clouds, puffy white. It is you as Icarus. You are by yourself up there. And you can't see the wings. You are flying in the sky. And you can't see the wings. You are hanging in the sky.
"The plane is part of you," Five says. "The stick is so sensitive that I'm never really conscious of using it. It's just an extension of me. All I know is, I want to get the plane from here to over there, and somehow, subconsciously, I do it. And then I'm there."
Psychologists have even speculated that fighter pilots feel they are tucked back into the womb. This would help explain why pilots sometimes don't eject when they clearly, rationally should. They can't bring themselves to leave. The diamond adds an almost contradictory element, for the cocooned individual is suddenly obliged to be engaged in the most intricate and deadly teamwork. There is not a whole lot of margin for error.
The planes are separated by as little as three feet vertically and sometimes half that horizontally—maintaining that proximity while the pilots accept up to 8½ times their body weight in pressure. There is no cruise control. Merely to maintain level flight, the pilot must at all times apply 12 pounds of pressure to the stick, flying at what is known as "full nose down trim." They all develop what Three calls Johnny Bench arms, and in winter their fingers grow numb. Still, no one would disagree that the mental intensity is the hardest part of flying the diamond.
Withal, they are human, just like you and me and the guy working the register down at the Ace Hardware. "My mind wanders," Two says. "In the midst of a maneuver I'll find myself thinking, Gee, I've got to go to the store this afternoon. But you snap back quickly up there."
In his second year on the team, it suddenly occurred to Four one day that he was concentrating on watching one of the new wingmen, while only following the Boss (a couple feet away, going 500 miles per hour) with peripheral vision—and all the while doing loops and rolls. "If anybody'd told me when I started that I'd be doing that, I'd have said they were crazy," he says.
At all times, too, allowances must be formulated for how the diamond is looking from the perspective of show center. Consequently, most times it is not desirable to fly in a simple symmetrical formation, in order to give spectators the illusion of symmetry. "There's a cheat involved in every maneuver," Six says. Moreover, at the speed at which the Thunderbirds operate, everything is magnified stupendously. The two solos try to pass exactly at show center, but if just one of them miscalculates by half a second, they're off by 400 feet.
Once the Boss pulls on his canopy and says, "All right, turn 'em on," none of the Thunderbirds have any idea how they're going over with the crowd. In this sense, they must be the purest of entertainers. "All I know is my own satisfaction of doing well," Six says. Often, he and the other solo perform maneuvers nearly head-on, yet they're going so fast they never see each other. They have to wait for the films. But that's no problem. They're in the military, and they do what they're told, the way people in sports used to.
"You know," says Four, "we do a lot of things a certain way even though we don't know why. In fact, some of the things we do seem crazy to us. But that's what's been passed along, and we figure there must be a reason why we're supposed to do it this way, so we do."
The saddest thing about the Thunderbirds is the one question they are asked the most: Is it all done by computer? Too often nowadays people are afraid to believe that other people can do things. Unfortunately, when the Air Force commissioned a movie about the Thunderbirds a couple of years ago, it was shot, basically, without any people in it. In such ways do computers take over.
Much more important, though, are the folks who come out to see the Thunderbirds. At Maxwell Air Force Base, in Montgomery, Ala., where the Thunderbirds are flying today—although it could be anywhere, any day, because it is always the same—there are, besides the brass and the brass band, a United Way poster boy, healthy children, handicapped people, Air Force people reenlisting, and a number of other people of no distinct identity except that they are smiling and appear to be quite happy. This is typical. And the reason these people count more than the Thunderbirds is that the Thunderbirds are, as Four said so well, imitating famous people, whereas the Thunderbird fans aren't imitating anybody. They are altogether real.
The brass band starts to play Sousa. The canopies come up, the helmets go off, frams are straightened, the overseas caps and aviator glasses go on. Then the Thunderbirds shake hands with everybody who puts out a hand this way, salute those who put up a hand that way. The re-ups march out—more Sousa—and the Boss gives them their oaths right in front of a red-white-and-black Thunderbird F-16. As soon as he says, "So help me, God," all the other Thunderbirds applaud, march over, get in front of the reenlistees, go into their photography squat and take off their aviator glasses. On the count: one, two, three. Then they troop the line, shaking hands with the men and women who have just signed on with Uncle Sam for a new term. The band is no fool. It waits until now to break into The Wild Blue Yonder. Off we go.
Nonetheless, whereas the people who come out to see the Thunderbirds are real, they are not, by any stretch of the imagination, a cross section. They are, simply, one section. They are what we dream America, all of it, could be. When Fig Newton, the first black Thunderbird pilot, met these people after the shows, he was amazed at how many of the white folks had actually read the article about him in Ebony magazine. "I found out, as a Thunderbird, that this country was a whole lot better than what I had been led to believe," he says. "It's a much more caring country."
To be sure, the Thunderbirds are largely preaching to those already converted. Nobody goes to a Thunderbird show to root against the Thunderbirds—or anything they stand for. But then, maybe Thunderbird America deserves something of its own. All the money can't go to prisons and hospitals. All the money can't even go to highways and politicians and nuclear weapons. There ought to be a little bit that gets spent on something just because it's nice. And the Thunderbirds are sort of that, a thank-you present to the happy, wholesome people. A bouquet.
The Thunderbirds think they're so lucky to be flying. As they get older, though, they'll surely remember the landing more than the flying. Imagine that every day, for two years, everybody you saw loved you and was grateful and proud. That isn't what we call the American Dream. It is, instead, the Dream of America—the dream of every nation—to triumph in the pursuit of happiness. It can never come true completely, of course, but it's all the Thunderbirds see, day after day, for two years. The people look at the Thunderbirds—handsome young men in gorgeous uniforms—and see the American Dream, and the Thunderbirds look back and see the Dream of America.
Luckily, they don't have to keep their feet on the ground.
"After that accident my wife said no way I could apply for the Thunderbirds, but she gave in because she didn't want me regretting that I hadn't done it."