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Thunderbird in formation

The air-show season is on us again, a chance for people outside the aviation industry to get an up-close look at aircraft old and new, both in static displays on the ground and in fancy aerial displays up above. A regular feature of air shows across the country is the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, better-known as the Thunderbirds.

Caption:Photo:U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Justin D. Pyle
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Delta Pass and Revue

The Thunderbirds perform a maneuver known as "Delta Pass and Revue." This year's schedule kicked off in late March at shows in Arizona and Florida. This weekend, the Thunderbirds will be at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia.

In a typical demonstration, which lasts a little over an hour, the team does approximately 30 maneuvers in both formation flying and solo routines.

Updated:Caption:Photo:U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Justin D. Pyle
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Museum of Aviation

On Sunday, the Museum of Aviation in Warner-Robins, Ga., near Robins AFB, plans to open a permanent exhibit featuring an F-16 Fighting Falcon that flew with the Thunderbirds from 1983, when the group began flying F-16s, to 1991, when it shifted to the newer F-16C. After that, it was used as a maintenance trainer at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas. (There's also a former Thunderbirds F-16 on display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.) The Air Force took delivery of its first operational F-16A in January 1979.

Updated:Caption:Photo:U.S. Air Force photo
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Upside down

To make it as an Air Force pilot, cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy have to learn to straighten up and fly right. But especially if they make it into the Thunderbirds unit, that doesn't mean they always have to fly right-side up.

The Thunderbirds squadron consists of eight pilots (six of them being demonstration pilots), four support officers, three civilians, and more than 130 enlisted personnel, according to the Air Force's Thunderbird fact sheet.

Updated:Caption:Photo:U.S. Air Force photo/David Armer
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Crew chiefs

Two Thunderbirds crew chiefs take a break after finishing their launch procedures. As enlisted men, they would typically serve three to four years with the squadron, while officers serve a two-year assignment.

Updated:Caption:Photo:U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Kristi Machado
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Las Vegas Motor Speedway

Appearances by the Thunderbirds aren't limited to air shows. Here, they fly over the Las Vegas Motor Speedway during a Nascar Nextel Cup race. The squadron's home turf is Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.

Updated:Caption:Photo:U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Larry E. Reid Jr.
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Pilot ejects

At an air show in Idaho in September 2003, a Thunderbird pilot ejected from his F-16 less than a second before it crashed. The pilot, who was not injured, was able to steer the jet away from the crowd, according to the Air Force.

Updated:Caption:Photo:U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III
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F-16 training

This F-16 belongs to the Texas Air National Guard's 149th Fighter Wing, which conducts a nearly eight-month F-16 Basic Course Training course for active-duty pilots. It is returning to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona after a training mission in Exercise Coronet Cactus last week.

Updated:Caption:Photo:U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Jack Braden
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F-16 armament

There are more than 1,000 F-16s in service with the U.S. Air Force, and many, of course, have a combat mission. The Thunderbirds, too, are expected to be able to be combat-ready within 72 hours. The aircraft are modified only slightly for their air-show performance role--they're painted in the red, white, and blue pattern, and a smoke-generating system is installed in the space designed for the 20mm cannon. Here, an F-16CJ crew chief stands back as his jet gets ready to taxi out for a training mission.

Updated:Caption:Photo:U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Larry E. Reid Jr.
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F-16 airstrike

This still image from a weapons system video shows the explosions from a September 2007 airstrike by an F-16. That action in Iraq killed several al Qaeda leaders.

Besides the 20mm multibarrel cannon with 500 rounds, the F-16 can carry up to six air-to-air missiles.

Updated:Caption:Photo:U.S. Air Force photo
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The F-16, built by Lockheed Martin, can hit about 1,500 mph, or Mach 2, and its ceiling is above 50,000 feet. The C and D models can withstand up to nine Gs, or nine times the force of gravity. The F-16C has a single pilot, and the F-16D has a crew of two.

Updated:Caption:Photo:U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Master Sgt. Mahmoud Rasouliyan
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T-38 Talon

From 1974 to 1983, the Thunderbirds flew the T-38 Talon--not a combat aircraft, but a trainer. The reason: It was more fuel-efficient and cost less to maintain than the F-4e Phantom it replaced.

Updated:Caption:Photo:U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Steve Thurow
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F-4E Phantom

From 1969 to 1973, the Thunderbirds flew the F-4E Phantom. This photo from the 1990s shows an F-4E dropping 500-pound bombs over a gunnery range.

Updated:Caption:Photo:U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. David Nolan
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F-100 Super Sabre

From 1956 to 1969, the F-100 Super Sabre was the Thunderbirds' plane of choice. The Air Force describes the Super Sabre as its "first operational aircraft capable of flying faster than the speed of sound (760 mph) in level flight."

Updated:Caption:Photo:U.S. Air Force photo
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F-84G Thunderjet

The Thunderbirds' very first plane was the straight-winged F-84G Thunderjet. The unit was officially activated in June 1953, just a month before the end of the Korean War.

Updated:Caption:Photo:U.S. Air Force photo
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F-84F Thunderstreak

After about a year and a half, the Thunderbirds switched to the swept-winged F-84F Thunderstreak--which was in turn replaced a year and a half later by the Super Sabre.

Updated:Caption:Photo:U.S. Air Force photo
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