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USAF Thunderbirds and Cheyenne Frontier Days share history

History and traditions tie both icons together for long running air show

Cheyenne Frontier Days is one of, if not the, most famous and recognizable western events in the world. With 126 years of history and tradition in its rearview mirror, the iconic Wyoming rodeo shares the culture of the west and inspiration of the cowboy lifestyle with scores of visitors from throughout the world. For it to be closely aligned with another American icon means a shared vision and commitment to longstanding excellence.

That shared vision and commitment comes in the form of the world famous United States Air Force Thunderbirds demonstration squadron, which is known across the globe as a team of some of the best pilots and exhibitions of skilled flying in the world. It makes sense the first public air show the USAF Thunderbirds participated in was held in 1953 at the Francis E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyo., and ran in conjunction and coordination with the already long-running CFD.

“This has been such an honor,” said CFD General Chairman Jimmy Dean Siler about the Thunderbirds’ close ties with Cheyenne’s historic event. “We have been associated with the Thunderbirds, we are their longest running civilian show. Other than the Air Force Academy, it seems they always come here and we are so proud of that. We have such a good working team, between Cheyenne Frontier Days and the military. It is awesome.”



Francis E. Warren Air Force Base commander Colonel Catherine Barrington, left, and Cheyenne Frontier Days General Chairman Jimmy Dean Siler, right, stand together during rituals and introductions before the start of the 2022 Wings Over Warren air show on July 27, 2022. The air show, the USAF Thunderbirds team, and Cheyenne Frontier Days all have a long relationship dating back to 1953.

The appreciation from the Thunderbirds is mutual.

“We’ve been doing it for 69 years,” said Captain Kaitlin Toner (Thunderbird #12), a public affairs officer for the USAF Thunderbirds. “I think what is really special about this show is you come here to Cheyenne and you look at the community and you look at the ties between Cheyenne Frontier Days and the Wings Over Warren air show — technically two separate events — but you look at how they tie in together. You look at how the community and the base work together, and it is a sight to be seen. It is just incredible. So for us, coming to Cheyenne is kind of a no-brainer. We have to come here. It is something that we absolutely cannot miss.”



TRADITION AND HISTORY

Watching the Thunderbirds, who are synonymous with the United States Air Force, display close ties to Cheyenne Frontier Days, which is synonymous with the lifestyle of the American West, is to see a respectful integration of two cultures both steeped in tradition and history.

“It is a cool feeling and a cool experience,” said Major Jake Impellizzeri (Thunderbird #8), the advance pilot and narrator for the USAF Thunderbirds, when addressing the topic of the respect both cultures have for each other. “The Thunderbirds are well-versed in tradition; we have a long line of tradition (and) we love our history. We can connect over that. It is a common interest and common goal that you want to protect your history because it is so important. In 1953, this was our first civilian public performance as the Thunderbirds team. We have been here ever since and it is just awesome to see the history, where the Thunderbirds started and where we are now.”

Major Jake Impellizzeri, standing center, Thunderbird #8, is the advance pilot and narrator for the United States Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, the Thunderbirds. Capt. Kaitlin Toner, left, Thunderbird #12, is a public affairs officer for the Thunderbirds team. During the July 25 practice session in advance of the 2022 Wings Over Warren air show at the F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyo, Major Impellizzeri performed sound checks and rehearsed his narration portion of the Thunderbirds' flight maneuvers for the upcoming July 27 air show while Capt. Toner communicated with Thunderbirds team members and coordinated PR with her team, the base and the media.

Now in 2022, officials from F.E. Warren Air Force Base appreciated their role in bringing the two together for yet another year.

“It is an amazing opportunity,” said Lt. Colonel Thomas McKnight, director of operations for the 319th Missile Squadron and Air Show Director for Wings over Warren, about hosting the USAF Thunderbirds and the air show in conjunction with CFD. “Wyoming traditionally contributes a lot of airman to our Air Force, so it is important to the community, it is important to our base and our mission and it feels nice to be able to give back and give the people something they enjoy. And hopefully we can inspire them.”

Lt. Colonel Thomas McKnight, director of operations for the 319th Missile Squadron and air show director for Wings over Warren, spoke to the media on July 25, 2022, while members of the USAF Thunderbirds team prepped in the background during a Thunderbirds practice session for the soon-to-be-held July 27, 2022 Wings Over Warren air show. "(The air show) is important to the community, it is important to our base and our mission and it feels nice to be able to give back and give the people something they enjoy," said Lt. Colonel McKnight.

Inspire they did, as initial estimates figure over 5,000 people showed up to watch the 2022 Wings Over Warren air show on Wednesday July 27. Despite early fog and some delays and changes to the program due to weather conditions the morning of the air show, the crowd was undaunted.

“I just love the Thunderbirds, watching them perform,” said Ben Hanlon of Arvada, Colo. Hanlon figured he has been coming to the Wings Over Warren air show for about 10 years, and his young sons (Cohen, 10 years old and Everett, 7 years old) have also caught his passion.

“They love it,” he said with a laugh about the boys’ enthusiasm for watching the Thunderbirds in action. “They are mesmerized.”

The popular Wings Over Warren air show, performed at the Francis E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyo., brings thousands of people out early in the morning to view it every year, including a high percentage of families with children. These two young boys being interviewed by a local Wyoming television station, Cohen, right, 10 years old, and Everett, left, 7 years old, have been coming to the show with their dad for about 10 years. "They love it," said dad, Ben Hanlon of Arvada, Colo., about his sons' responses to watching the USAF Thunderbirds perform. "They are mesmerized."

Impressing, connecting with, and inspiring new generations is a central theme for the USAF Thunderbirds team and a big part of why they began participating in civilian air shows back in 1953, with CFD being the very first one.

“We are going to showcase (our) pride, precision and professionalism,” said Major Impellizzeri about 2022’s air show. “Not only the Thunderbirds, but the Air Force as a whole, the military as a whole, and the Cheyenne Frontier Days community as a whole.”

Captain Toner took that thought one step further.

“We are looking to inspire people to be beacons of excellence,” summed up the USAF Thunderbirds public affairs officer. “We want to show people excellence in the form of a demonstration, excellence in the attention to detail that you see on the ground; anything that will inspire folks to just be the best version of themselves. Even if it is just being a better person, being a better parent, being a better community member or friend, that is really what it is all about.”

Five USAF Thunderbirds show the iconic paint job on the bottom of their F-16 Fighting Falcon jets as they fly overheard in tight formation during a practice session in preparation for the upcoming Wings Over Warren air show at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming on July 2022.
USAF Thunderbirds practiced a popular solo maneuver with one F-16 right-side up and one upside down in close proximity as they prepared for an upcoming July 27, 2022, air show at F.E. Warren Air Force base in Wyoming.
Practicing for the upcoming 2022 Wings Over Warren air show held annually in conjunction with Cheyenne Frontier Days, a quartet of USAF Thunderbirds F-16 Fighting Falcons fly across the sky in a formation so close to each other that it appears to be just two extra-long jets in the sky.
A formation of five F-16 Fighting Falcons piloted by the USAF Thunderbirds team soars out of the clouds like they were born from them as the elite Air Force pilots practiced maneuvers in preparation for the upcoming 2022 Wings Over Warren air show in Wyoming on July 27, 2022.
A high speed, close proximity flyby maneuver is demonstrated by two USAF Thunderbirds pilots during a practice session in preparation for the 2022 Wings Over Warren an air show at the F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming. Showing the extreme flight speed, as well as the skill required for this maneuver, the track and pan photography method of shooting this image shows one of the F-16 Fighting Falcons, foreground, to be stopped and sharp, while the other, background, is displaying movement and action blur from the speed and sideways roll.
Almost creating the appearance of a single, long aircraft, the USAF Thunderbirds fly a long sequence in extremely close formation across the sky during the 2022 Wings Over Warren air show at the F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyo., on July 27, 2022.
USAF Thunderbirds demonstration squadron performs a close formation, high speed maneuver during the 2022 Wings Over Warren Air Show at the F.E. Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyo., (July 27, 2022). The Thunderbirds advance pilot and narrator described their proximity in this formation to be 18 inches away from each other
Although low fog was burning off in the morning, the sky remained foggy and hazy enough that the USAF Thunderbirds pilots performed their "low show" for the 2022 Wings Over Warren air show held annually in conjunction with the Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo and western celebration in Cheyenne, Wyo. The popular Delta Burst maneuver with the six pilots flying on July 27 was an indication the air show was nearly finished.
The sight of numerous rodeo queens waiting to climb into a Wyoming Army National Guard helicopter on the grounds of the Francis E. Warren Air Force Base before the start of the 2022 Wings Over Warren air show was more evidence of the close ties between the military base and Cheyenne Frontier Days in putting on the long-running event that happens annually while Cheyenne Frontier Days is occurring.
Members of the USAF Thunderbirds ground team huddles up for a conversation with their commanding officer before the start of the 2022 Wings Over Warren air show at the Francis E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyo. "You look at how the community and the base work together, and it is a sight to be seen," said Captain Kaitlin Toner of the Thunderbirds. "Coming to Cheyenne is kind of a no-brainer. We have to come here. It is something that we absolutely cannot miss."
Families with children patiently waited in long lines for a chance to see up close and personal — as well as sit in the helicopter pilots chairs — this recent model HH60M Blackhawk hospital helicopter the Wyoming Army National Guard brought to the 2022 Wings Over Warren air show. "Basically a flying ambulance," as it was described by Sergeant First Class Popp, can hold six litters at a time with another two seats in the back for ambulatory people. Four flight crew are also part of the complement the Blackhawk medical helicopter can hold.
A trio of USAF Thunderbirds F-16 Fighting Falcons climb in close formation in a high maneuver in preparation for an upcoming air show in Wyoming (July 2022). While the July 25 practice session included these types of steep climbs and high maneuvers, the July 27 Wings Over Warren air show's weather was not as cooperative and the Thunderbirds went to their "Low Show" format, which incorporated a heavier percentage of crowd pleasing low passes in tight formations.

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