Thunderbirds promise shorter, slicker, less repetitive airshow routine for 2021 season

LAS VEGAS | The US Air Force Thunderbirds are set to debut an all-new airshow routine later this month, marking the first major change to their show in 40 years.

With less impressive manoeuvres dropped and two new ones added to the team’s high show, the new routine has been designed to be shorter, less repetitive and to feature shorter gaps between each manoeuvre, bringing it more in line with other major jet aerobatic teams around the world. Aimed to provide more entertainment value and connect better with audiences, the new show was designed with input from Walt Disney and the US Navy Blue Angels, according to The Drive.

With much of 2020’s airshow season cancelled, the team say they were afforded a unique chance to completely redevelop their show. The team said the new sequence will “better showcase the complexity, challenge and capabilities of the F-16 and air force pilots.”

With one exception, the new routine features familiar manoeuvres, but the sequence has been completely re-ordered to allow for faster repositions. The number of manoeuvres has also been reduced, cutting the amount of time the jets spend in the air by over ten minutes. This will bring the overall time of the aerial performance to around half an hour – comparable to most other major jet aerobatic teams.

Manoeuvres such as Arrowhead Loop have been dropped, as well as several solo manoeuvres including the Eight-Point Roll. The Low/High Pass, previously part of both the high and low shows, will now feature in the low show only.

The main new manoeuvre added to the show is the Stinger Cross Break – a move which sees the slot pilot split away from the rest of the Diamond formation before the two sections fly in opposing directions down the show line for a three vs. one opposition pass. The team are also claiming to have added a second new move, the Low Bomb Burst with Hit (although an almost identical move already featured in the team’s low show).

Additionally, the team’s ground show – a feature unique to the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels – has been shortened too. This will bring the team’s overall performance time down from 90 minutes to 50 minutes. For added spectacle, pilots and ground crew will now communicate solely through hand gestures, rather than speaking via intercom.

Many major aerobatic teams, such as the Patrouille de France and Red Arrows, perform a new display sequence each year, but perhaps thanks to their unusually short training seasons, the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels have generally performed the same routine for many years at a time. This year, both teams will be bringing a new show sequence to the circuit: with their transition to the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, the Blue Angels will also be presenting a shorter show, cutting out manoeuvres which are less impressive to watch, or impractical to fly in their new jets. Shorter shows will also help to extend the aircraft’s fatigue life.

The Thunderbirds are not the only team to have used the pandemic to good effect: the Black Eagles also used their unusually long training season to refine their show, and introduced a quartet of impressive new manoeuvres to their routine late last year.

The new show will be debuted at the Cocoa Beach Airshow on the 17th-18th April. The team also plan to perform at around two dozen other airshows this year. You can see their 2021 schedule here.