Thunderbirds Laid To Rest; Legacy Lives On

  • Published
  • By J.M. Eddins Jr.
  • Airman Magazine


On Wednesday, Sept. 14, twin brothers, who became Air Force generals and founding members of the Thunderbirds, and their wives were inurned in a ceremony at Section 75 of Arlington National Cemetery.


Fittingly, the incredible Air Force careers of Lt. Gen. Charles “Buck” Pattillo and Maj. Gen. Cuthbert “Bill” Pattillo, which spanned combat in WWII and service during the Korean and Vietnam Wars, were honored with a flyover by the air demonstration squadron they helped create.
They were the last members of the original Thunderbirds team to pass away, Bill in 2014 and Buck in 2019.

Their inurnment at Arlington National Cemetery was postponed until they and their wives passed and could be laid to rest together.
After flying with the U.S. Army Eighth Air Force’s 352nd Fighter Group during WWII, the Pattillo twins were founders of the demonstration team created prior to the Thunderbirds, the U.S. Air Forces in Europe-North Atlantic Treaty Organization aerial demonstration team, the Skyblazers, in 1949.
After the Thunderbirds were officially activated June 1, 1953, as the 3600th Air Demonstration Team at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, the twins flew the wing positions in the formation and helped create some maneuvers that are still performed today, including the famous “Bomb Burst” finale.

The twins flew the first Thunderbird aircraft, the straight-winged Republic F-84G Thunderjet, a combat fighter-bomber that had seen action in Korea. Early in 1955, the team transitioned to the swept-winged F-84F Thunderstreak.
From the beginning, the objectives of their squadron were to support Air Force recruiting and retention programs, strengthen morale and esprit de corps, support Air Force community relations and people-to-people programs, represent the United States and its armed forces to foreign nations and project international goodwill.
In fact, they flew with Then Maj.Chuck Yeager, the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound, on the Thunderbirds’ first international performances in 1954.
Throughout their history, the Thunderbirds have also flown the F-84G, F-84F, F-100C Super Sabre, the first to be painted with the now-iconic Thunderbird spanning the underside of the aircraft, F-105B Thunderchief, F-100D Super Sabre, F-4E Phantom II, T-38 Talon, F-16A and the F-16C Fighting Falcons used today.
VIDEO | 04:01 | U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds 2022

Today’s Thunderbirds is an Air Combat Command unit comprising four support officers, three civilians and more than 130 enlisted personnel in 25 career fields supporting eight pilots (including six demonstration pilots).

Performances by the Thunderbirds are a mix of formation flying and solo routines. The four-aircraft diamond formation demonstrates the training and precision of Air Force pilots, while the solo aircraft highlight the maximum capabilities of the F-16.
The F-16 represents the full range of capabilities possessed by the Air Force’s tactical fighters. This highly maneuverable, multi-role fighter has proven to be one of the world’s best precision tactical bombers and air-to-air combat aircraft. The only modifications needed to prepare the aircraft for its air demonstration role are installing a smoke-generating system in the space generally reserved for the 20mm cannon and painting the aircraft in Thunderbird colors.

Because the modifications are minimal, the F-16s can be combat-ready in less than 72 hours. Additionally, this enables the personnel and aircraft to rapidly integrate into a fighter unit at Nellis AFB, Nevada.
The pilots perform approximately 30 maneuvers in a demonstration. The entire show, including ground and air, runs about one hour and 15 minutes. The season lasts from March to November, with the winter months used to train new members.

Officers serve a two-year assignment with the squadron, while enlisted personnel serve three to four. Replacements must be trained for about half of the team each year, providing a constant mix of experience.

The squadron performs approximately 75 demonstrations each year. Throughout their history, the Thunderbirds have performed for more than 300 million people in all 50 states and 58 foreign countries during more than 4,000 aerial demonstrations.
Through Thunderbird performances, those millions have 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.