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Bye Bye F-4! When USAF Thunderbirds “Downsized” Due To Oil Crisis

When The Services Began To Feel The Oil Noose Tighten During the 1970s It Was Time To Fly More Economical Jets

Official US Air Force Photograph

When the United States Air Force (USAF) Precision Flight Demonstration Team transitioned from the McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom II to the Northrop T-38 Talon in 1974, they did so in large part because the entire formation of T-38s used only slightly more fuel than a single F-4E. Anyone who saw the Thunderbirds perform their show in the Phantom II and then again in the T-38 had to feel the difference between the two aircraft. Here’s a film promoting the Thunderbirds and their T-38 Talons uploaded by Wdtvlive42 – Archive Footage

Official US Air Force Photograph

The transition to the Talon also resulted in changes to the performance routines flown by the Thunderbirds. The shows flown in the T-38 showcased the aircraft’s comparatively high maneuverability and tight turning radius. The switch to the Talon also brought to an end the days of the slot aircraft (number 4 in your programs) flying with the sooty vertical tail surfaces. Thunderbird 4’s vertical stabilizer retained the same polished tail colors as the other aircraft from that point forward.

Official US Air Force Photograph

The Thunderbirds’ United States Navy (USN) counterparts, The Blue Angels, switched from the F-4J model Phantom II to the Douglas A-4F Skyhawk in the same timeframe and for the same reasons as the Thunderbirds switched to the T-38. Their entire formation of A-4Fs used about the same amount of fuel as a single F-4J. And their performance routines too were modified to showcase the Skyhawk’s strengths.

Official US Navy Photograph

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Written by Bill Walton

Bill Walton

Bill Walton is a life-long aviation enthusiast and expert in aircraft recognition. As a teenager Bill helped his engineer father build an award-winning T-18 homebuilt airplane in their Wisconsin basement. Bill is a freelance writer, an avid sailor, engineer, announcer, husband, father, uncle, mentor, coach, and Navy veteran. Bill lives north of Houston TX with his wife and son under the approach path to KDWH runway 17R, which means they get to look up at a lot of airplanes. A very good thing.

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