On a nice spring morning, and most likely at a nearby military installation, the gates will open for an airshow. At show center are six red, white, and blue F-16Cs which belong to the United States Air Force’s Aerial Demonstration Squadron–the Thunderbirds.

At a given point in the day’s schedule, the pilots and crew chiefs will perform an orchestrated, precise “ground show” to launch the aircraft, and shortly after the Vipers will take to the sky for their trademark demonstration. Most people understand preparation is needed for the performance to go smoothly, but few know exactly what goes into getting to this point of execution.

Bear with me, as I am about to give you a look behind the curtain; but, first let us rewind to the middle of November. The Thunderbirds finish their last show, Aviation Nation, at Nellis AFB. This show marks two things: a successful show season, and the beginning of training season.

Admiring young patriotic fans cheer on the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron "Thunderbirds", as they perform the Diamond Opener during the Aviation Nation Air Show at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., Nov. 12, 2011. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Larry E. Reid Jr., Released)
Admiring young patriotic fans cheer on the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron “Thunderbirds”, as they perform the Diamond Opener during the Aviation Nation Air Show at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., Nov. 12, 2011.
(U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Larry E. Reid Jr., Released)

Training season runs from the middle of November until the beginning of March, and it’s in this short four and half months the new demonstration pilots are trained and the performance perfected. Every year, half the pilots are newcomers, as is the majority of “Showline” (the Dedicated Crew Chiefs and Specialists who perform the ground show). We often come in early in the morning due to airspace and time conflicts in the Nevada Test and Training Range; when the Thunderbirds moved to Nellis in 1956, they didn’t have to compete with Weapons School, Flag-level exercises, and Creech Air Force Base flight operations all at the same time!