Like they have for 59 years, Thunderbird pilots of the Air Force aerial demonstration squadron will again streak across the sky in red, white and blue jets at air shows across the country.
But this year before they wrap up the last of two Aviation Nation shows at Nellis Air Force Base on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, they will land a spot in the Nevada Aerospace Hall of Fame. They will lead the 2012 class of eight aviation legends who will be enshrined in a ceremony on Nov. 7 at the base’s Officers Club, hall officials announced this week.
“This is a very major event,” said T.D. Barnes, director and co-founder of the Nevada Aerospace Hall of Fame.
“As far as I know, we are the only state that has recognized an organization such as the Thunderbirds. We’re setting a high-water mark that other states are starting to follow,” Barnes said Friday, referring to states such as Arizona, Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio, that have recognized famous aviators for many years.
Nevada’s 2012 class of will bring to 25 the enshrinees in the Aerospace Hall of Fame since the inaugural class in 2010.
The Thunderbirds team, known as “America’s ambassadors in blue,” is steeped in tradition and is regarded as a valuable recruiting tool to inspire young men and women to join the Air Force.
The Thunderbirds have performed in more than 4,000 air shows in 59 years, and the team has been based at Nellis for the past 55 years. The team has entertained crowds in all 50 states and 60 foreign countries. The team was established on May 25, 1953, at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. Its first leader was Maj. Dick “Smokey” Catledge.
In an excerpt from “We Rode the Thunder,” by Bob Gore, Catledge recalled an encounter with famous test pilot Maj. Chuck Yeager while at Kelly Air Force Base, Texas.
“As head of the group of F-80s and T-33s that went with us, he flew one of the T-33s, which was the trainer version of the F-80. On the morning of our departure, Yeager said, ‘Let’s go.’
“Major Charles Chennault protested, asking, ‘Shouldn’t we have a briefing?’
“Yeager looked at him and said, ‘Oh, yeah. I tell you what. The first one to the end of the runway is the leader,’ and off he went. I could tell it was going to be an interesting trip.”
Luke Air Force Base had a contest to name the team. The winner would receive a savings bond and a paid weekend in Las Vegas.
“We received about 100 entries, and 25 percent of them chose ‘Thunderbirds.’ It seemed everything was named Thunderbird in Phoenix. Too common. We rejected it. We would be … the Stardusters,” Catledge said in a 2003 interview.
The team later adopted the name Thunderbirds, befitting the Southwestern culture where they were based and representative of the American Indian legend of a giant eagle or hawk that commanded great fear and respect. For logistical reasons, the team moved to Nellis Air Force Base in 1956 when it began flying supersonic, F-100 Super Sabres. Today the Thunderbirds fly F-16 Fighting Falcons.
The other enshrinees in the Hall of Fame class of 2012 are the following:
■ Randall T. Henderson, an early barnstormer who Hall of Fame officials think is the first person to fly into Las Vegas. He served in North Africa during World War II.
■ Maurice F. Graham, a World War I aviator and hero of the Meuse-Argonne offensive. A pilot who delivered the first air mail letters to Las Vegas, he died in a blizzard during an air mail flight.
■ Jess C. Harris, an early mechanic for the ail mail service who was a Lockheed test pilot during World War II and the first sheriff in Nevada to routinely use aviation for law enforcement.
■ Robert W. Bussard, designer of nuclear thermal rocket engines tested in Nevada and inventor of the Bussard ramjet.
■ William Park, the first pilot to fly the A-12, YB-12 and SR-71 Blackbirds more than Mach 3 above 80,000 feet. He flew 112 combat missions in the Korean War and later flew the first flight of Lockheed’s Have Blue stealth fighter prototype at Groom Lake.
■ Francis J. Murray, a CIA A-12 pilot for Groom Lake’s Project Oxcart. He flew 67 combat missions in Vietnam and was awarded the CIA’s highest award for flights over North Vietnam and North Korea.
■ David L. Ferguson, a Vietnam War veteran with more than 100 combat missions. He was a U-2 test pilot, a Lockheed YF-117A test pilot and chief test pilot of the YF-22A program in Nevada.
Anyone who would like to become a member of the Nevada Aerospace Hall of Fame nonprofit organization to support its mission to educate and preserve the state’s aerospace history can go to http://nvahof.org.
Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers@review
journal.com or 702-383-0308.