Did You Know That Thunderbird 9 Uses Mirror To Mark Show Center For Thunderbird 1 During Airshows?

U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds demonstrate precision flying during the 2016 Defenders of Liberty Airshow at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., May 1. A Thunderbird performance displays the pride, precision and professionalism of the team while highlighting the skills and training indicative of all members of the U.S. Air Force. Years of training are brought together in the hour-long demonstration, exhibiting what the Air Force is all about. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Mozer O. Da Cunha)

The U.S. Air Force demo team rely on a signal mirror that provides a fixed reference point to the formation during the display.

The video below is particularly interesting. It was filmed in 2016 and shows the then current and future USAF Thunderbird 9 pilots using their signal mirrors to signal Thunderbird 1 and mark the show center to the team.

The footage was filmed at Huntington Beach, CA, on Oct. 20, 2016, during the practice session for the weekend airshow.

Thunderbird 9 is the flight surgeon for the USAF Thunderbird air demonstration team. On the right hand side is Maj. (Dr.) Christopher Scheibler, Thunderbird 9 for 2015-2016; on the left is Capt. (Dr.) William Goncharow, who would be Thunderbird 9 for 2017-2018.

Obviously, TB1 can’t see the very small mirror itself, whose size is that of a business card. What TB1 sees is the concentrated ray of sunlight reflected by the mirror – 4,000,000+ candlepower of it – more than 20 times brighter than an air traffic control signal light gun.

This signal mirror is a USAF issue 2″x3″ glass MIL-M-18371E Mark 3 Type 1 emergency signaling mirror with a retroreflective mesh aimer. The MIL-M-18371E is standard USAF pilot survival gear, also used for ground-to-air communication. On a clear day, with the sun overhead, this mirror can reflect a beam that is naked-eye visible at 20+ miles – see the video here.

Maj. (Dr.) Chris Scheibler, Thunderbird 9, holds the signal mirror he used to mark show center for Thunderbird 1 during the USAF Thunderbirds’ aerial performance at the “Thunder over the Empire” airshow at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County, CA on April 17, 2016. (Image credit: Signal Mirror)

Even though to the eyes of a spectator a demo team’s display overhead an airport does not change much from the one which takes place over another airfield or the coastline of a beach resort or a lake, the way the team flies may differ significantly depending on the “environment” in which the aerobatic display is executed. The different topographic features of the place where the air show takes place, and the surrounding landscape may, in fact, require the adoption of specific solutions in order to maintain standard distances and for the correct evaluation of terrain separation under peculiar light conditions.

Familiarisation with the landscape and evaluating the display arena are the purposes of the preparation flight which precedes every airshow display. In the case of displays flown over land, the terrain usually offers a multitude of fixed references which assist in the perception of speed, travelled airspace and altitude, such as crop lines, fields, roads, railways, and water courses. Over the water, however, it is necessary to utilise buoys or small boats which, besides delineating the display area in respect to a crowd line which is frequently extremely extended, allows the accurate determination of the display line. This line constitutes the reference for the pilots for the safe execution of all the manoeuvres. Whereever the display takes place, the show center is one of the most important reference points for the team.

By the way, the Blue Angels demo team use the same mirror.

Top image: right screenshot from rafowell video

About David Cenciotti 3755 Articles
David Cenciotti is a freelance journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written four books.