The Thunderbirds, the flight demonstration team and “Ambassadors in Blue” for the United States Air Force, have had a long relationship with Cheyenne Frontier Days. The Thunderbirds first public performance was at the “Daddy of ‘em All” in 1953, and the team has delighted fans at Frontier Days every year since.
Every year except 2013, that is, when the government decided to ground the Thunderbirds due to budget cuts. Cheyenne Frontier Days officials and fans felt a real sense of loss in their absence. Thousands of loyal fans have made their way to Laramie County Community College for 59 years to experience the fantastic show put on by the Thunderbirds.
In 2003, the Thunderbirds were inducted into the CFD Hall of Fame. Cheyenne Frontier Days has always been favorite stop for the men and women of the Thunderbird aerial demonstration team on their annual world tour. Since the kick-off flight at Frontier Days in 1953, the Thunderbirds have performed in all 50 states and 65 countries overseas.
The Thunderbirds currently fly the sleek F-16 fighter, which they adopted in 1983, with its distinctive red, white and blue color scheme and the thunderbird painted on the underside. The F-16 Fighting Falcon is a highly maneuverable multi-role fighter and has proved to be one of the world’s best precision tactical bombers and air-to-air combat aircraft.
The only modifications needed to prepare aircraft for air demonstrations are a smoke-generating system and painting in Thunderbird colors. If required, the team’s personnel and aircraft can be rapidly integrated into a fighter unit at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. Since the planes have only slight modifications, they can be made combat-ready in less than 72 hours.
All of the Thunderbird F-16s are single seat except plane 7, which has been modified to have a second seat. An Air Force photographer that travels with the Thunderbirds rides in this plane. When the Thunderbirds put on a demonstration flight, a member of the local media or a VIP is given a much sought after ride with the flight team.
In 2011, the Thunderbirds extended the coveted invitation for the VIP flight to “Tuff” Hedeman, a man well known to rodeo fans everywhere. Hedeman was in Cheyenne to kick off the association with Frontier Days of his new venture, Championship Bull Riding, and was very excited to climb onto a red, white and blue, rocket-powered ‘bull’ and go for the ride of his life.
The Thunderbirds are a visible presence at Cheyenne Frontier Days. Not only do they attend events and parades, they can also be seen flying over Frontier Park during their practice for the demonstration flight.
The home base for the Thunderbirds while they are in Cheyenne is the Wyoming Air National Guard base and Frontier Park is directly in the flight pattern for landings and take offs. Being right under an F-16 as it roars into the sky under full power is an experience that can be felt as well as seen, and looking up at a landing plane to clearly distinguish that the pilot is looking down at you is amazing.
The Thunderbird demonstration is at Laramie County Community College. It is a great venue, as LCCC sits on elevated ground, which offers an unobstructed view of the planes that are flying over open ranch land. There are no bad view points at this event. The media photographers are on top of a three story building and the planes fly so low that it seems as if you are on the same level as they are.
There is absolutely no charge for parking at LCCC, the practice flight or the Demonstration Flight. This is an extremely popular event and does have some traffic issues, but a little planning solves those problems and visitors can always choose the free shuttles that leave and return to points in Cheyenne. The road into LCCC is closed thirty minutes before each flight and remains closed to all traffic until thirty minutes after the performance has concluded.
To start the show, the six plane formation arrives from behind the crowd. They fly at a low altitude and pull straight up over the crowd. As the air is suddenly filled with planes, the sound catches up and with that, the sound and action of the United States Thunderbirds show is underway.
Two of the six planes roll and pull away in opposite directions while the remaining four are now in the famous “delta formation” with mere feet separating them as they streak vertically into the clear, blue Wyoming sky. At the top of their climb, the four planes of the formation roll and loop over to begin plummeting back toward the crowd.
As the formation finally pulls up and flies away and the crowd takes a collective breath, they suddenly are aware that the two planes that had flown off in opposite directions are rocketing towards each other and will meet in a head-on collision right in front of the spectators.
At the last possible moment the planes, which are capable of speeds up to 1500 miles per hour, flip on edge and pass safely belly-to-belly with a few feet to spare in what is known as the “knife edge pass”. Those are just the first two maneuvers. There are still thirty-eight maneuvers and fifty-five minutes to go.
The Thunderbirds Air Show is sponsored by F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne. The fact that it is free to Cheyenne Frontier Days visitors is an incredible gift. Mark your calendar now to see the Thunderbirds next year as they represent the pride, precision and professionalism of the United States Air Force. ❖