The Thunderbirds started out with the F-84G Thunderjet, and then gradually moved to other planes, including the F-100C Super Sabre, F-4E Phantom, and T-38 Talon. It was during the Talon era that it suffered one of the world’s biggest air demo team disasters, losing four pilots and planes.
Back in 1982, during a practice run for a show in Indian Springs, a four-plane formation tried to perform a so-called line abreast loop. That meant the planes had to climb together to an altitude of several thousand feet, perform an inside loop turn, and then rush for the ground at speeds of 400 mph (644 kph). At just 100 feet (30 meters) above ground, they were supposed to level off.
Because of what was later discovered to be a jammed stabilizer on the lead jet, all four planes slammed into the ground, as the pilots of the other three planes did not question the maneuvers of their leader, hindered by mechanical failure, and followed him down.
It took the team quite a while to get back on its feet, but it has flown ever since without major incidents, and Americans have witnessed them time and time again performing incredible stunts. Most of the time, people see the F-16 Fighting Falcons now fielded by the team from the outside, and rarely get a chance to peek out the canopy of the planes.
But now here’s a rare occasion when we can do just that, thanks to an amazing photo released by the Air Force. It shows the teams’ pilot Maj. Michael Brewer flying over the Cleveland Browns stadium during a show in the city back in September.
We get glimpses of Cleveland below, but we can also spot the rear ends of three other Thunderbirds F-16s, reflected in the visor of the pilot. Quite an amazing sight, with both the sky and the ground captured in a single image.