The United States Air Force Thunderbirds are "America's Ambassadors in Blue," a famed air demonstration squadron. At air shows the announcers always say that Thunderbird aircraft could be ready for action within as little as a few days time. Well, as it turns out, they aren't lying.

This is the account of a very rare event from our friends over at Sierra Hotel Aeronautics, and something few have seen before — the time Thunderbird F-16 was loaded with a lot more than smoke oil.


"It was 1988; the USAF Thunderbirds were tasked by Gen Robert Russ, who was Tactical Air Commander (TAC) at the time, to put one of our Thunderbird aircraft into combat configuration in the allotted (mandated) 72 hour period, a task never done before on the team.


To make a long story short, the maintenance boys and girls worked their backsides off and had the aircraft ready in less than 72 hours with the only exception being that the jet wasn't painted (in the combat scheme). The aircraft tail number selected for this event was Thunderbird Number 10 which was 81-0679.

A couple of interesting facts in this event, the aircraft originally came to the team from the factory (I don't know that date) painted in Thunderbird colors when it later left our organization in combat gray only to be returned to us from Hill AFB again repainted with Thunderbird Red, White, and Blue to be used during the training/show season of 1990.


For the 1990 Show Season that aircraft had been assigned to Thunderbird Crew Chief, TSgt. Dave Kramer and his Assistant Crew Chief who was a Hydraulic troop named SSgt. Mark Thome (Number Two in the Diamond). A couple of years later it (the aircraft) left again along with all of the other "A" models and it would be assigned to a Singapore unit at Luke AFB (training organization). It (tail number 81-0679) still remains the only Thunderbird aircraft to be painted combat gray and Thunderbird colors twice!

Funny enough, the nickname "Warbird" came about when someone (still unknown from within the team, who was possibly assigned to this conversion tasking) used their finger and wrote the word "Warbird in the gun residue while it sat in the hangar after its historic flight, the name "War Bird" stuck with the team and was used when the event was reported back to TAC/HQ. TSgt. Dave Kramer had made some "plates" to attach inside the cockpit that were later mounted on plaques for SSgt Mark Thome and Steve Henderson (there were many others whose names I can't all remember helped greatly in this project). The plaques stated "Warbird, Second to None" because of it flying in the number 2 position of the Diamond.


Major BJ Java (our Logistic Officer, Vietnam Vet pilot), who was #7 at the time, flew the jet, shot bullets and dropped bombs. The jet looked awesome being red, white and blue with a gun, bombs, missiles, and ECM pod fully functional.


Thunderbird Msgt Charlie Saunders remembers being on the ramp when the jet returned from its sortie and BJ had that "big 'ol grin on his face". The jet was a mess with all the gun gases (soot) that had stuck to that beautiful paint job, we (the team collectively) made Thunderbird history that day.

I hope you enjoy the photos...


SMSgt (Retired) Tom Wharton - USAF Thunderbirds, Production Superintendent, Chief of Quality Control and (US Navy Blue Angels, Thunderbird Maintenance Exchange Program Liaison 1990) Line Chief - 1988 to 1991

Re-posted with the permission of our friends at These guys have an incredible passion for military aviation and some awesome gear to buy, so go purchase some stuff and make sure to join their facebook page, it is a great source of awesome pics and military aviation history.

Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who edits the website Foxtrot Alpha for You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address