Thunderbirds in Tucson


F-16 Flying Falcon

Thunder-19We arrived in Tucson to spend the month of March, our third visit in three winters. Shortly after our arrival, we heard that the United States Air Force Thunderbirds, the Air Force’s demonstration squadron, were performing at an Air Show at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. So we went to see the Thunderbirds in Tucson.


A still flying B-25 Mitchell

We have seen the Blue Angels (the Navy’s demonstration squadron) perform twice, including one time in Key West in the early part of our walkabout, but we had never seen the Thunderbirds.


KC-10 Extender

C-130 Super Hercules

C-130 Super Hercules

KC-10 Extender

KC-10 Extender

There were two air shows on the weekend and both days featured plenty of activities at the base with many military aircraft on static display, including some that were open for inside viewing.


EC-130H Compass Call used for electronic warfare

E-3 Sentry

E-3 Sentry

Not only were there military planes, but other government vehicles were on display, including police and border patrol vehicles, a bomb squad truck, and a mobile SWAT team command center.

The show seemed particularly focused on kids, with fun activities and Air Force personnel spending quality time with them.

And, of course, there were lots of food booths. The base is massive so it took hours to see everything there was to see aside from the air show. It was quite an event.


C-5 Galaxy

C-5 Galaxy

Our friend Jerry joined us, and the three of us headed out to the show. It was a beautiful crisp day with hard light and a bit of haze so photography was going to be challenging.

We did not plan to spend all day, but arrived shortly after the air show began and made our way slowly to the end of the base, where the viewing stands were located.

The base had several very large transport planes on display, including a C-17 Globemaster, a C-5 Galaxy, medium transports like the C-130 and specialized airplanes like AWACs. Also a Blackhawk helicopter, a Predator Drone and a B-1 Bomber.

B-i Lancer

B-i Lancer

C-5 Galaxy, one of the largest military planes in the world.

C-5 Galaxy, one of the largest military planes in the world.

V-22 Osprey

V-22 Osprey

A-10 Warthog

A-10 Warthog

RQ-1 Predator Drone

RQ-1 Predator Drone

We decided to pay to watch the air show from one of the viewing stands, since the key maneuvers take place directly in front of those. But it was possible to set up a perch and watch the show for free as well, and even though the base did not allow people to bring chairs and umbrellas they were available for rental. There were lots of options available for viewing.


Thunder-25As is the norm with these air shows the main attraction, the Thunderbirds, were scheduled to be the last performance. We saw parachutists demonstrate high speed maneuvers, dropping as a pair with parachutes deployed, pretty incredible what these guys can do.Thunder-26

Some little aerobatic planes zoomed and looped above.Thunder-45




Thunder-48Thunder-47The show even featured a race between a plane and a rocket car that blasted down the runway.  Cool.Thunder-49

And for the first time this air show season, the newest F-22 Raptor was part of the show.

F-22 Raptor

F-22 Raptor

Thunder-37The lone F-22 Raptor performed a pretty amazing aerial display of agility and power.


Thunder-36Thunder-35Near the end of the F-22 part of the show a classic P-51 Mustang joined the newer plane for what was billed as a “Heritage Flight” honoring the history of the Air Force.  Very cool to see these very different planes flying in formation.

All that time the Thunderbirds’ F-16s were lined up in a row in front of the viewing stands. All shiny and gleaming.Thunder-38Thunder-41

Thunder-52Thunder-50Thunder-90Both the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds are demonstration squadrons who perform not only to entertain and educate the public but to recruit.

The demonstration begins with  a ground show featuring avionics technicians, tactical aircraft maintenance technicians and other personnel marching out onto the field.

All activities leading to the departure of the aircraft are carried out with crisp movements and in unison with those performing the same function. And, of course there is music to add to the ceremony and increase the excitement.Thunder-51

Thunder-54Thunder-53Thunder-55We had noticed that there were only five airplanes on the tarmac, and just as the pilots climbed up into their cockpits, the announcer mentioned that the sixth pilot had a small injury and would not be flying. Safety first. And apparently there are no backup pilots. We were disappointed, since we know that some of the formations are designed to show off best with six planes.

Then, as the pilots closed their cockpits, we noticed that one pilot left his open. The other four taxied out past the audience to the end of the runway. The fifth plane remained and the pilot climbed down, got into a car and the car zoomed away out of sight towards the end of the runway. Oh-oh.  Shortly thereafter the faulty jet was towed away.

No further announcement was made for a long time, but when finally the show began, there were five airplanes in the air. Apparently, a spare F-16 had been waiting at the end of the runway. Crazy.

Thunder-86Thunder-57Thunder-70Thunder-58Thunder-76Thunder-68Thunder-59The show was amazing, although I must say that it was not quite as exciting as the Blue Angels. Probably an unfair comparison since one plane was missing. But even though the Blue Angels’ planes are beautiful, I prefer the paint job on the underside of the Thunderbirds. A stunning depiction of the Thunderbird, a creature from Native American legends.  Thunder-63Thunder-60

Thunder-88Even with only five planes, the precision flying in tight formation was impressive as was the way they would barely miss each other in crossing maneuvers.




And we were delighted when at three o’clock in the afternoon,  the lovely crescent moon appeared in the sky and the Thunderbirds performed a few maneuvers just alongside her. Absolutely beautiful!

The air show ended and we made our way slowly back, checking out more aircraft and other vehicles and feeling grateful for all of these men and women who protect our democracy.

~ Brenda and HectorThunder-79

20 thoughts on “Thunderbirds in Tucson

    • Hector did a great job, especially considering the harsh light. We were really sorry to miss you too. Let us know if you are heading to Utah, New Mexico or Colorado in the next few months.

  1. WOW Hector that moon and Thunderbird’s shot is pretty amazing. You should send that shot in to some national picture competition or at least show them for recruitment.
    What can I say. I love jets. Karen : )

    • I thought so too. I looked at the Thunderbirds website photos and Hector’s are better (not that I’m biased or anything). We are going to look more seriously into photo contests this year for sure. See you in the summer!

  2. Just love this post and all the amazing photos. I grew up in an Air Force family and went to my share of air shows growing up. You and another blogger who posted about this same show have made me really want to see the Thunderbirds again. Thanks for bring back fond memories.

    • Thanks! The Thunderbirds were practicing over Phoenix as we drove through last week, so they are continuing their tour. They really are amazing.

  3. Hector, you went above and beyond with your photos at the air show!! The perfection and timing of these shots is amazing. As John was reading through the post, he was so impressed with positioning of the planes in the photos. He kept remarking and showing them to me (as if I hadn’t read the post) and exclaiming how great this shot was and that one. He thoroughly enjoyed this post:) Sounds like a fantastic day! I don’t believe I’ve ever seen the bottom of the Thunderbird planes…really pretty.

    Thanks, Brenda, for the flowing narrative and the background info:)

    • Thanks Pam! As we drove through Phoenix a few days ago we saw the 6 plane formation was up doing practice and it was even MORE cool. I love the smell of jet fuel on a pretty day 🙂 H

  4. We are from Dayton, Ohio and they always have a large airshow during the summer. We also have the United States Air Force Museum. Worth the trip.

    • Hi, Brian. Hector is pretty good with his planes, and we somehow thought we heard the announcer say F-35, but obviously your brother is correct. We have corrected the post and will add a note to our next post about the correction. Thanks for letting us know!


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