Tag Archives: United States Air Force Thunderbirds

Exclusive Interview with the Photographer Who Shot The Massive 21-Plane Formation of Every American Military Jet Demo Team

Unique One-Time Mass Formation Over Lake Erie Captured by Photographer Glenn Watson.

In what is certainly one of the most spectacular aerial photo shoots in aviation history, photographer and pilot Glenn Watson captured amazing photos of the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds and the Canadian Forces Snowbirds jet demonstration teams flying together in one massive formation last Thursday, August 30, 2018 over the Midwestern United States.

It is likely the first and probably the last time this unique formation of 21 aircraft (23 total aircraft including support planes) could ever be photographed flying together in formation. Watson told us in an exclusive interview the incredible photo shoot was planned in advance nearly a year ago.

“’Feed’ (Call sign for Blue Angel #5) and ‘Naughty’ (Call sign for Snowbird #10) hatched the idea last year at ICAS [The International Council of Air Shows- Ed.]. Then, one step at a time, the mission was planned and with excruciating detail sent up for approval. I’m normally involved in the logistical planning of local flights, but with the complexity and widely spread out nature of this one almost all of this particular mission planning took place inside the military between the three teams. Lots of moving parts with 23 jets, 3 teams launching from 3 different places,” photographer Glenn Watson told TheAviationist.com.

Aerial photography specialist Glenn Watson is from Mach Point One Aviation Photography based in central Texas. To get these unique photos he joined the teams, flying in the back seat of a two-seat Boeing F/A-18D Hornet belonging to the U.S. Navy Blue Angels flight demonstration team as Blue Angel #8. The aircraft was flown by U.S. Navy Lieutenant Andre Webb of Lawton, Oklahoma. Lt. Webb is actually Blue Angel #7 himself, and has over 2,100 flight hours and 200 arrested carrier landings.

The team of photographer Glenn Watson and Lt. Andre Webb flew off the right wing of the converging group of aircraft as they rendezvoused over Lake Erie near the Canadian/U.S. border.

Photographer and pilot Glenn Watson shot these remarkable photos of the Snowbirds, Thunderbirds and Blue Angels in one massive formation last week. (Photo: Glenn Watson/MachPointOneAviation)

“It was all planned with primary focus on flight safety – precise altitude deconfliction and route planning so the elements flew in their own “lanes” and never passed behind one another and encountered wake turbulence or jet wash,” Watson told TheAviationist.com.

The 21 aircraft formed up in their precisely arranged “stair step” formation initially with smoke on so the aircraft could visually acquire each other for the link-up. The Canadian Forces Snowbirds, the 431st Air Demonstration Squadron, took the top position in their CT-114 Jet Tudors with nine aircraft, the largest number of team aircraft in the photo formation. Stacked below the Snowbirds was the U.S. Navy flight demonstration team, the Blue Angels, in six Boeing F/A-18C Hornets. Flying trail in the formation at the low edge of the stair-step formation were six single seat General Dynamics F-16Cs from the USAF Thunderbirds.

Watson himself is uniquely qualified for such an extraordinary photo shoot since he is, in addition to being a professional photographer, a pilot himself who is certified in formation flying. This technical insight by Watson enables him to work safely and effectively with other aircraft in formation flight and to communicate efficiently with his photo platform pilot, Lt. Andre Webb.

Photographer Glenn Watson with Blue Angel #7, U.S. Navy Lt. Andre Webb. (Photo: U.S. Navy/via Glenn Watson)

“Once we all joined, the photo ship, Blue Angel #7 with me [photographer Glenn Watson] in the back, would maneuver around the elements to get the various angles. The plan was the three full team elements making left turns, 30-mile legs lined up in order of most available power on the outside of the turn. No formation changes or position changes were planned besides slight adjustments to spacing between elements for symmetry,” said Glenn Watson.

The three jet teams begin a wide left turn over the open lake during the photo mission. (Photo: Glenn Watson/MachPointOneAviation)

Lt. Andre Webb and Glenn Watson continued to fly to the right of the converging formation throughout the shoot and varied altitude relative to the huge 21-plane group to get the unique photos.

Watson used his trusty Nikon D810 DSLR camera body with a 24-70mm/f2.8G zoom lens for these shots. “That combo is my go-to still image kit for 80% of my work, with a D810 and 70-200mm/f2.8 VR covering the rest.”

While every aviation photographer in the world would no doubt jump at the chance to photograph such a formation, only a uniquely qualified pilot and photographer like Glenn Watson has the combination of technical skills and creative insight to optimize such a unique and dynamic opportunity.

Watson told us after the photo shoot, “I think being a pilot helps for all my work because you have a better idea of what is possible to do with an airplane, and what is required to put the airplanes in the various attitudes for the shots. Some spots may be blind, or have no “out” and it helps to fully understand that and therefore not ask pilots to move into those spots for photos.”

The risks involved in mass photo shoots of dissimilar aircraft are very real, as tragically demonstrated in the June 8, 1966 midair collision of a NASA F-104N Starfighter and a USAF XB-70 Valkyrie heavy bomber during a publicity photo shoot for jet engine manufacturer General Electric over Barstow, California. The tragic accident during the formation photo shoot left two experienced test pilots dead and two advanced aircraft burning in the desert near Edwards AFB.

“It’s definitely hard to comprehend everything that is going on during a shoot like this, and when you’re in charge of directing it there is no time to think up there. If you think, you’re dead. (‘TOP GUN’ Quote of course). Basic operation of your gear and exposing the photos properly has to be second nature. Positioning the aircraft in the right place for the sun angle, keeping equipment contained inside the jet and not interfering with controls, moving the formations around to line them up in real-time, and anticipating what the aircraft may be doing next, all while pulling G’s and yanking and banking in the back of a fighter jet takes all your concentration. Most of these jet photo shoots’ time together is very limited and once they’re “in” you start firing away and execute the shot list as fast as possible. It’s pretty scary to think about, but on many flights when it’s ‘photo X’ complete and the subjects detach (and I start breathing again) I realize I never looked at the back of my camera a single time- I just get in the zone and you can feel when it’s working,” Glenn Watson said.

After Watson’s incredible images began to go viral across social media only hours after the shoot was over the significance of what he achieved in the context of aviation history became apparent. It was also apparent that very few other aviation photographers could have captured the incredible images the way Glenn Watson did.

Watson had time for a quick selfie in the back of the Blue Angel #8 Boeing F/A-18D Hornet. (Photo: Glenn Watson/MachPointOneAviation)

“Formation flying is all about trust – I have been working tirelessly the last 4 years building a relationship with the Blues and proving to them that me and my team are also top professionals and can be trusted to get the shots and return to base safely. The Blue Angels have always been heroes of mine, and being asked by them to capture these historic photos was the highest honor. I have been a Blue Angel guy since I was a kid and for me sitting in their briefing room, being included in the preflight briefing, the walk down to the jets, and then shaking hands with each pilot in line after the flight was a highlight of my life.”

In seeing the final product of Glenn Watson’s photography and the impressive planning and precision flying of the Snowbirds, Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds it’s reasonable to suggest that Watson’s photos may be the highlight of not only the 2018 air show season, but of many seasons to come.

Thanks to aviation photographer and pilot Glenn Watson for his interview. Watson’s website for viewing and booking his aerial photography and all contacts is: www.machpointoneaviation.com

U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds Commanding Officer Relieved of Duty Due to “Loss of Confidence”

Lt. Col. Jason Heard, Thunderbird #1, Relieved Due to “Loss of Confidence”

Lt. Col. Jason Heard of the U.S. Air Force Flight Demonstration Squadron, The Thunderbirds, has been relieved of command, the USAF Air Combat Command said today in a news release. The official reason cited for his removal from the position was a “loss of confidence’.

According to most definitions, military “loss of confidence” is when a party is, “inadequate in some respect, are failing to carry out obligations, or are making decisions that other members feel are detrimental.”

Lt. Col. Heard was relieved by USAF Brig. Gen. Jeannie Leavitt, 57th Wing commander at Nellis AFB. In a statement released by the U.S. Air Force, Brig. Gen Leavitt was quoted as saying, “This was an incredibly difficult decision to make, but one that is ultimately in the best interests of the Thunderbird team.” Brig. Gen. Leavitt went on to say in the release. “I am personally grateful for Jason’s dedication to the 2017 season.”

The official statement said, “Lt. Col. Heard led the team through a highly successful show season,” but that Brig. Gen. Leavitt, “lost confidence in his leadership and risk management style.”

The Thunderbirds experienced one accident under the command of Lt. Col. Heard. On June 23, 2017, during an orientation flight for an enlisted maintenance team member, Thunderbird #8, piloted by Capt. Erik “Speedy” Gonsalves, slid off a runway the day before the Vectren Dayton Airshow in Dayton, Ohio. It was raining at the time. The Thunderbird F-16 rolled during the accident and came to rest upside down. An official accident report later read, “Upon landing, the pilot was unable to stop the aircraft on the prepared surface. As a result, the aircraft departed the runway and overturned in the grass,” The F-16 involved in the accident was written-off.

In part of an e-mail sent to Aviation Week’s Lara Seligman, a spokesperson for the Thunderbirds, said the leadership change was, “unrelated to the Dayton incident.”

“This decision was based on Brig. Gen. Leavitt having lost confidence in Lt. Col. Heard’s leadership in risk management style. While he led a highly successful 2017 show season featuring 72 demonstrations over 39 show sites, concerns arose that his approach to leading the team was resulting in increased risk within the demonstration which eroded the team dynamic, ” Thunderbird spokesperson wrote in the email.

The Thunderbirds’ operations officer, Lt. Col. Kevin Walsh, has  assumed interim command of the team until a new commander is selected, according to Air Combat Command.

Top image: The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds taxi to their parking area During Aviation Nation 2017 Air Show at Nellis AFB while one pilot shoots a photo from his cockpit. (Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist.com)

Airshow Insider: Behind The Scenes with the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds.

A Lot Goes Into Making a USAF Thunderbirds Flight Demo Happen; Here is Some of the Advanced Preparation.

Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Mt. Clemens, Michigan in the U.S. celebrated their 100th Anniversary with the Team Selfridge Open House and Air Show on Aug. 19 and 20. As a major U.S. airshow the event featured displays celebrating both U.S. Air Force history that showcased current and future operations at Selfridge and throughout the Air Force. As with many important airshows at Air Force facilities throughout the season the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds were the headlining performers at the show.

We got an insider’s look at the U.S. Air Force Flight Demonstration Team, The Thunderbirds, arrival and preparation for the big weekend prior to the show. Selfridge Air National Guard Base Public Affairs team, including USAF MSgt. David Kujawa, worked hard to get TheAviationist.com access to the Thunderbirds and a unique, behind-the-scenes look at their support team days before the airshow.

Thunderbird ground crew closes up on the jets prior to more rain on the Thursday before show weekend at Selfridge.

The Thunderbird’s arrival at Selfridge ANGB on Thursday, Aug. 17, two days before the show was unique since the team faced the combined challenges of flying all the way from their home base at Nellis AFB outside Las Vegas, Nevada and arriving at Selfridge ANGB in bad weather.

Thunderstorms and high winds buffeted the base and airshow venue early on arrival day. A KC-135T Stratotanker from the 171st Air Refueling Squadron at Selfridge ANGB launched early on Thursday from Michigan to support the Thunderbirds flight from Nevada to Michigan. After their rendezvous over the western U.S. the Michigan based tanker crew conducted three midair refuelings for each of the five Thunderbird F-16’s on their way to Selfridge. The sixth aircraft was already on station at Selfridge.

Thursday was a combined media day for the Thunderbirds and Selfridge along with crew orientation to the venue; rehearsal and planning for the numerous appearances and activities the Thunderbirds participate in while at a demonstration venue.

Traveling with a massive amount of parts and equipment to insure the show launches all aircraft in a high state of readiness, Thunderbird team members discuss the maintenance schedule.

One mission of the Thunderbirds during their visit to Selfridge was a Hometown Hero flight with Dr. Brian Smith of Detroit, Michigan. Dr. Smith was chosen for a Thunderbird Hometown Hero flight for his unselfish service to community and his lifelong commitment to education. He has received Congressional recognition for his efforts to steer young people to a career in aviation. Dr. Smith is the First African American to get a Ph.D in biomedical engineering from Wayne State University in Detroit. He also studied the effects of IEDs on soldiers in conflict zones and the effects of aircraft ejection on pilots. Smith’s family has a long history of selfless service to the U.S. military. His father served in World War II including spending time in a prisoner of war camp.

“I was up all night, couldn’t sleep, I am so excited.” Dr. Smith told us. “I tried to take a nap earlier today. No luck. I just want to get up there. I’m hoping they let me control the aircraft briefly. I’m a licensed pilot. Maybe I can experience the high roll rate of the aircraft myself.”

Dr. Brian Smith of Detroit, Michigan was fortunate enough to be selected as a Thunderbird “Hometown Hero” and flew with the team on Saturday after Thursday’s flight was weathered out.

Dr. Smith’s flight was scrubbed on Thursday due to bad weather but he did fly on Saturday morning with the Thunderbirds.

During the ground rehearsal for the weekend’s demonstrations the Thunderbirds would be parked across the field from the show line and spectators at Selfridge. TSgt. William Russell, a Thunderbird Crew Chief from Burlington, Vermont, told TheAviationist.com, “We’re going through the grey launch process rehearsal. It’s what we use to prepare aircraft for arriving at or leaving a show state.

TSgt William Russell, a Crew Chief on swing shift for the Thunderbirds, from Burlington, Vermont helps prepare the team by going through the grey launch process. (Photo: TheAviationist.com)

A significant amount of time on Thursday was spent with Thunderbird crews drilling on the ground demonstration portion of their show. The choreography and precision you see with the ground crew is difficult to achieve and requires frequent practice to maintain, so Thunderbird personnel are constantly training the procedures that are more regimented versions of the same launch protocols used for a combat F-16 unit in the Air Force.

Thunderbirds rehearse the precision drill and ceremony launch procedure of their show constantly.

A Thunderbird team member stows pilot gear for the team as the rain approaches.

The day was quiet as weather moved in and the Thunderbirds closed up their aircraft after performing regular maintenance and their training on the tarmac. Pilots in ready rooms held meetings for the flight demo and made plans for interfacing with the public throughout the demanding show weekend. It was an interesting look inside the process of the team getting ready for a typical Thunderbird airshow weekend.

H/T to Lance Riegle for the help with the video


Here Are The Highlights Of Royal International Air Tattoo 2017

Several Interesting Aircraft Took Part In This Year’s Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT).

Held at RAF Fairford, on Jul. 14-16, RIAT 2017 brought to the UK a wide variety of interesting aircraft from around the world. Among them, the Ukrainian Air Force Su-27 Flanker, the F-22 Raptor, the Italian special colored Tornado, the Thunderbirds demo team as well as the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, escorted by two F-15Cs, on a Global Power sortie.

The images in this post were taken by The Aviationist’s contributor Alessandro Fucito.

The Italian Air Force Tornado A-200A CSX7041/RS-01 of the air arm’s Reparto Sperimentale Volo (flight test centre) was awarded the prize for best livery.

The Boeing B-17F Flying Fortress G-BEDF (124485/DF-A) of the B-17 Preservation Trust.

Straight from Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, the B-2 Spirit from Air Force Global Strike Command flew over RAF Fairford flanked by two F-15C Eagle jets.

A Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker of the 100th ARW from RAF Mildenhall flying with the extended “boom”.

The C-130J-30 Hercules 08-8602/RS from the 37th Airlift Squadron, 86th Airlift Wing, United States Air Forces in Europe, Ramstein Air Base, Germany.

A three-ship formation of 2x F-15Cs and 1x F-15E from RAF Lakenhath 48th FW.

Taking part in the 70th Anniversary flypast there were also these F-16CJs belonging to the 480th FS from Spangdahlem, Germany, temporarily deployed to RAF Lakenheath.

The F-22 flying alongside the P-51B Mustang. Maj Dan ‘Rock’ Dickinson of the US Air Force’s 1st Fighter Wing at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, was awarded the Paul Bowen Trophy, presented in memory of Royal International Air Tattoo co-founder Paul Bowen, for the best jet demonstration.

The Ukrainian Air Force brought a pair of Su-27 Flankers, supported by an Ilyushin Il-76 cargo aircraft. The single seater performed a stunning aerial display.

The Lockheed U-2 “Dragon Lady” took also part in RIAT 2017. Interestingly, the chase car used by the ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) aircraft was Tesla chase car instead of the Chevrolet Camaro typically used for this task.

The Thunderbirds performed a flyby along with the RAF Red Arrows. This year the USAF demo team, escorted by two F-22s, also took part in the Bastille Day flypast over Paris, France.

A U.S. Navy Boeing P-8A Poseidon. The aircraft will soon serve in the UK as next MPA (Maritime Patrol Aircraft).

Couteau Delta, made by two Mirage 2000Ds of the French Air Force was one of the highlights of this year’s RIAT. The team included a Mirage painted in a desert scheme presented at the Base Aérienne 133 Nancy-Ochey, home of the EC3/3 Ardennes, on Mar. 1, 2017, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the air raid against a Libyan air defense radar at Ouadi Doum, Chad.

The Thunderbirds over the skies of RAF Fairford. The team suffered an incident when a two-seater flipped over after landing at Dayton International Airport in Ohio on Jun. 23.

Image credit: Alessandro Fucito



Thunderbird F-16D Ground Accident in Ohio, Global Hawk Drone Crashes in California.

RQ-4 Long Range RPV From Beale AFB Crashes in Mountains, Thunderbirds F-16D Crashes In Runway Rollover.

In two separate, unrelated incidents a U.S. Air Force F-16D Fighting Falcon of the Thunderbirds flight demonstration team flipped over after landing at Dayton International Airport in Ohio and a U.S. Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk long range surveillance drone has crashed on a ferry mission from Edwards Air Force Base back to its home base at Beale AFB in California.

The Thunderbird F-16D involved in the crash is a two-seat variant often used for orientation and public relations flights with two people on board, a Thunderbird pilot and guest of the team.

There is a report that the second person on the Thunderbird F-16D may have been an enlisted Thunderbird maintenance team member. Enlisted members of the Thunderbird team are sometimes flown for orientation and media purposes. Reports from the crash scene suggest one of the persons in the aircraft was waving to emergency personnel from inside the aircraft. Because the aircraft came to rest upside down the canopy could not immediately be opened. Rescue personnel were on scene immediately following the accident.

In an official release on the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds’ Facebook page, the team’s social media liaison wrote, “The United States Air Force Thunderbirds were conducting a single-ship familiarization flight on Friday June 23, 2017. Upon landing there was a mishap at the Dayton International Airport with an F-16D Fighting Falcon at approximately 12:20 p.m. Emergency services are on the scene. We will provide more information as it becomes available.”

Although no official cause of the accident has been released, weather may have been a factor. As of 1:00 p.m. local time weather websites for the area reported thunderstorms with heavy rain and lightning with wind gusts up to 23 M.P.H.

A Thunderbird F-16D two-seat aircraft flipped over while on the ground at Dayton International Airport today in preparation for an airshow there this weekend. (Photo: WHIO-TV via Facebook)

On Jun. 2, 2016, a U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds F-16 crashed shortly after the demo team had performed a flyover at the annual Air Force graduation ceremony in Colorado Springs. The pilot managed to eject before the aircraft crash landed in a field not far from Peterson AFB, Colorado. The cause of the F-16CM #6 crash was found in “a throttle trigger malfunction and inadvertent throttle rotation.”

In an unrelated incident a U.S. Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk long range surveillance drone had crashed on a ferry mission from Edwards Air Force Base back to its home base at Beale AFB in California on Jun. 21. Media reports said the remotely piloted vehicle was from the 12th Reconnaissance Squadron at Beale and was on a routine flight from Edwards Air Force Base. The aircraft went down near Mt. Whitney in the Sierra Nevada mountains at approximately 1:45 p.m. PST on Wednesday, June 21.

The Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk is a key strategic intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance asset for the U.S. Air Force. It is a long range, long duration surveillance asset. The RQ-4 uses synthetic aperture radar to “see through” overcast and nighttime conditions to provide precise imagery of terrain features. A series of infra-red and long-range electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensors provide imagery and spectrum analysis of targets from the RQ-4. Some analysts compare the mission and performance of the unmanned RQ-4 Global Hawk to the manned TR-2/U-2 long range, high altitude reconnaissance aircraft. There may be as few as four of the RQ-4s operating from Beale AFB.

A file photo of a U.S. Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk long range surveillance remotely piloted vehicle. (Photo: Northrop Grumman)