“Thunderbirds” Honor Bulgarian Air Force with a Spectacular Show

Like the name they bear, the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron “”Thunderbirds”” challenged the heavy rain on June 25, 2011 at the Graf Ignatievo air base with a spectacular performance before the storm. The audience was fascinated by the show of the eight elite pilots who managed to complete the most attractive maneuvers like “diamond”, “knife” and to do solo performances.

The show was organized on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Bulgarian Air Force and the world famous American demonstration team performed at Graf Ignatievo to celebrate their 58th show season. The US air force group is one of the few that demonstrates its supersonic combat aircraft F-16. The squadron had visited Bulgaria for the third time in four years. The event was organized by the Bulgarian Air Force, US Embassy in Bulgaria, and supported by the AmCham Bulgaria.

Among the VIP guests at the airshow were U.S. Ambassador James Warlick, the minister of defense Anyu Angelov, chief of defense gen. Simeon Simeonov, chief of air force gen. Konstantin Popov, senior military officers, military attaches, members of parliament, deputy chief of the air force Rumen Radev.

The pilots arrived at the Graf Ignatievo air base on June 23 after a show in Finland. On Bulgarian soil the pilots warmed up with several demonstrations while an elite team of the Bulgarian air force prepared to welcome them on the ground at a traditional bread and salt ceremony. The next day the squadron did its spectacular one hour program especially for a group of underprivileged children and children with disabilities from the homes “”Olga Skobeleva””, “”Rada Kirkovich”” and “”Maria Louisa””.

The Thunderbirds are the air demonstration squadron of the U.S. Air Force (USAF), based at Nellis AFB in Las Vegas, Nevada. The squadron tours the United States and much of the world, performing aerobatic formation and solo flying in specially-marked USAF jet aircraft. The name is taken from the legendary creature that appears in the mythology of several indigenous North American cultures. Officers serve a two-year assignment with the squadron, while enlisted personnel serve three to four. Replacements must be trained for about half of the team each year, providing a constant mix of experience.

The event was kindly supported by: Lockheed Martin, AON, Electron Progress EAD, Eltrak Bulgaria, M Car-official dealer of BMW, Jack Daniel’s, Orbit Ltd, UniCredit Bulbank, Coca-Cola, Kamenitza, McDonald’s, Nestle, and 1-Express Party.


Capt. Nicholas Holmes

Capt. Nicholas Holmes, 31, is the slot pilot for the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron “”Thunderbirds,”” flying the No. 4 jet. He entered the Air Force in 2002 from Colorado State University. Before joining the team, Captain Holmes was an F-16 instructor pilot and flight commander for the 310th Fighter Squadron at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. He has logged more than 1,400 flight hours as an Air Force pilot, with more than 240 hours of combat experience in the F-16C/D. Captain Holmes is in his first season with the team, and hails from Highlands Ranch, Colo.


“Thunderbirds” Manage to Perform at One Meter Distance
Says Capt. Nicholas Holmes, slot pilot for the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron

-Capt. Holmes, is there a difference in flight preparation in air force in general, and in the “Thunderbirds” team?

-That is a good question. Safety is a number one priority in air force. No matter where we are flying, the preparation is one and the same, and the time spent is about the same. We fly a little bit closer to each other in the “Thunderbirds” group than we normally do.

-What is the closest approach?

-All in all we are 8 pilots, each one has a number on the plane and everybody performs manoeuvres. I am number 4, and together with the pilots N 1, 2 and 3, we fly in so called “Diamond” group. We are about 1 meter closer to each other. Afterwards when we meet each other, we have 40-50 meters distance which is a safety requirement. The most important thing is the safety, and we are not that closer to each other as it may look from earth.

-Can you perform demonstrations in bad climate conditions?

-It depends on how low the clouds are. The clouds should not be lower than 500 meters.

-What is the duration of the whole demonstration?

-It is about one hour, including the ground show. Actually the engineering staff begins the jets preparation for the demonstrations on the ground. You see only 8 pilots but we have over 100 people on the team. Our demonstrations are very much a team effort, we all lean on each other to make sure everything will go well.

-What is the manoeuvre that is most impressive and most hard to perform?

-My favorite flight manoeuvre that is most breath taking is called High bombers, which on a beautiful weather like now, would look great. This is a manoeuvre applied for bombarding from a smaller height when the four crafts separate in four directions while rising.

-Are the maneuvers performed in real combat?

-No, we definitely do not perform any combat manoeuvres, what we really demonstrate, are what our pilots and maintainers can do, and what our air force can do. We have over 70 different shows each year, which basically start in mid March and go through mid November. All of the flags on the corpus of the crafts are where we have performed our shows in history of the team. It was formed in 1953. We are coming from Finland where we have been for the first time.

-How could you fly with such precision?

-We practice a lot. We have to fly 4 times per week minimum, each time for 8 hours (including ground preparation, brief, and debrief), whether we are at home or abroad. Every time we make a recording of the flights and we watch our show to see our mistakes.

-What is the most impressive story with Thunderbirds?

-For me, the most impressive thing is that we are in Bulgaria, flying in here. We flew over Latvia, Romania, Lithuania, now in Bulgaria, and here we have talked to pilots of MIG-29 craft, which does not happen every day. It is such an honor for our team to be in Bulgaria although I miss very much my family, my wife and a 1.5 year old boy. They live in the air base in Las Vegas, Nevada. I wish they were here now.

-What are your career plans after flying with the Thunderbirds?

-I hope to go back in flying F-16 squadron in combat missions.