We 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As 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.
Some little aerobatic planes zoomed and looped above.
The show even featured a race between a plane and a rocket car that blasted down the runway. Cool.
And for the first time this air show season, the newest F-22 Raptor was part of the show.
The lone F-22 Raptor performed a pretty amazing aerial display of agility and power.
Near 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.
Both 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.
We 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.
The 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.
Even 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 Hector