Home' Australian Aviation Magazine : November 2009 Contents 21
NOVEMBER 2009 AUSTRALIAN AVIATION
Come March and the team is ready to
go on the road. A typical airshow season
involves 70 displays and anything up to 270
days away from Nellis.
While every position on the team has its
challenges, it is the Lead who arguably has
the most difficult job. e amount of infor-
mation on parameters and contingencies that
a Lead must have filed away in his helmet is
awe-inspiring. Lead is currently Lt Col Greg
'Charger' omas who must fly the show
quickly, smoothly and seamlessly. He must
at all times know precisely the position and
parameters of the formation with reference
to show-centre and the whereabouts of the
solos, which can be difficult because every
airfield or venue is unique. Factor in terrain
and changing weather and his hands are full.
Lead has some help in memorising the
sequence. One of the jobs of Number Two,
Major John Baum, is to check that Lead
has announced the next pass correctly.
Airshow spotters who tune into the un-
derbirds transmissions can hear a flam-
boyant "Two-ahh", or some variation on
that, as confirmation of a correct call from
Lead. e rare call of "Manoeuvre" means
Lead needs to rethink his sequence. Two is
known as ' e Secretary' for this reason.
Every Lead flies in slightly different
ways and each team must adjust to that.
e underbirds have developed a way
of communication from the Lead known
as 'the ditty'. Lead will constantly talk
in a measured cadence to pre-empt each
manoeuvre in such a way as to give each
wingman a reference point to, for instance,
start a roll or commence the pull into a
loop. For a roll the command from Lead
will be, "Rolling left and rolling". e
wingmen know that the roll will commence
as the 'r' from the second "rolling" is being
transmitted. Lead spends the entire show
talking his way through whichever version
of the display is being flown that day.
ere are three versions of the show
available to fly depending on the weather
conditions on the day.
e High Show is the full display, incor-
porating all the higher altitude looping and
bomb burst manoeuvres.
e Low Show is used when the cloud
base precludes loops but allows rolling
passes. Passes like the arrowhead loop, for
instance, can be made into a rolling pass. e
Flat Show, a series of formation and solo
passes, is used when the weather really closes
in and features no vertical manoeuvres.
While the team always takes two spare
F-16s to each airshow, sometimes a ground
or air abort means that the display can be
forced into last minute changes. A five ship
formation known as the 'stinger' can be
flown in lieu of the delta. In the stinger one
of the solos flies behind the slot instead of
on the wing.
If Two, ree or Four are not present,
then a hybrid diamond formation known as
the 'flying dorito' is used.
Flying the diamond or being a solo pilot
demands different skills and tempera-
ments. Major Sean Gustafson is the cur-
rent slot pilot and is in the unique posi-
tion of being the only USAF Reserve pilot
in the team. Major Gustafson was a Delta
Airlines 767 first officer until late last year
when the USAF hierarchy decided that
the 75,000 Air Force Reser vists needed a
representative on the underbirds.
Sean has his own views on the capabili-
ties required to do the various jobs. "Let's
just say that I appreciate the flamboyant
aspects of the solo's routine, but I prefer
the precision of the diamond," he says.
Modestly, he considers himself, "...only an
Every new solo comes into the team as
Number Six and finishes as Number Five.
However, they do not swap wing positions
in the delta in their second year as that
change would be too demanding. Solos
do consider themselves a breed apart as
evidenced by the inverted number five
that is proudly displayed on the Lead
solo's aircraft. Many of the signature solo
passes feature Five in the inverted position
so it makes sense to have the '5' correctly
Viewing a underbirds show means
there is always something interesting to
watch. From the 20 minute ground show
where the aircraft are readied for flight by
their super-efficient and motivated crew
chiefs, to the new eye opening loop after
takeoff, followed by the syncopation of
the diamond and solo passes. e show
culminates in the six-ship delta passes
and the jaw-dropping high bomb-burst
After 35 minutes of aerial precision,
Lead takes the diamond skyward where
they separate for the first time in the show.
A perfect cross is then painted in the sky at
around 7000ft for a following solo to rocket
through. On command the diamond pilots
manoeuvre to point their F-16s towards
the bomb-burst crossover point. e aim is
for the diamond aircraft to arrive from all
points of the compass, inside an impos-
sibly small box of airspace in front of the
crowd at the same time, giving the illusion
of impending collision with 1700km/hr
e underbirds do their job very
well and that is by no accident. "Incred-
ible attention to detail" is the hallmark
and motto of this elite demonstration
squadron. We can only hope that it won't
be another 17 years untill they grace our
ROLLING The Thunderbirds set up for the Delta Roll.
TRAINING WHEELS The Thunderbirds use the two-seat F-16D, known as the Tub or Family Model, to train
new pilots and as an operational spare for the display.
Links Archive October 2009 December 09 Navigation Previous Page Next Page