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Air Force Thunderbirds Co-Founder, Pilot Dies at 94

The Air Force Thunderbirds first flight team, including Buck Pattillo, in 1953. (USAF)

ATLANTA — Lt. Gen. Charles “Buck” Pattillo, a co-founder and one of the first pilots of the Air Force Thunderbirds, passed away on Monday. He was two-weeks shy of his 95th birthday.

In November 1942, an 18-year-old Pattillo and his twin brother, Bill, joined the U.S. Army Air Corps. They fought during the second World War together, and came together again to form a European flight team for the Air Force.

Buck Pattilo served during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. He earned his pilots wings in 1944, and began flying the P-40 aircraft. He later flew the P-47 aircraft, moving up to the P-51D Mustang — nicknamed Little Rebel — the following year.

In January 1949, the young pilot was assigned to Fürstenfeldbruck Air Base, Germany. There, Buck and Bill helped organize The Skyblazers — the aerial demonstration team for the U.S. Air Forces in Europe. Beginning with the F-80 Shooting Star and F-84s, The Skyblazers flew in over 250 air shows across Europe and North Africa.

Buck Pattillo (right) and his brother, Bill (left) began the Air Force’s European aerial demonstration team, The Skyblazers, in 1949. (USAF)

Buck Pattillo’s experience with an air demonstration team moved him to create the Thunderbirds in 1952 while stationed at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. Just as he did with the Skyblazers, Pattillo flew as the team’s left wing pilot, while brother Bill flew as the right wing pilot.

Led by Maj. Richard “Dick” Catledge, the Thunderbirds first year included Buck, Bill, and four fellow officers, plus 22 enlisted maintainers and logistics members. The Thunderbirds were activated on May 25, 1953, and flew the F-84G Thunderjet as a four-ship formation, according to the Thunderbirds. The T-33 Shooting Star, a tandem seat aircraft, served as the narrator’s plane for media and VIP flights.

In 2000, both Buck and Bill were inducted into the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame. The twins, each who rose to rank of General, had accomplished nearly everything together.

Buck and Bill continued to stay active into the 2000s, including attending air shows and public events. In 2009, they both attended the Oshkosh air show. It marked the first time since 1945 in which Buck visited the restored P-51 Little Rebel. He was all smiles.

Bill died in 2014.

(Charles A Atkeison reports on aerospace and technology. Follow his updates via social media @Military_Flight.)

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Written by Charles Atkeison

Charles A Atkeison is a long time aerospace journalist having covered both military and civilian aviation, plus 30 space shuttle launches from Cape Canaveral. He has produced multimedia aerospace content for CNN, London's Sky News, radio, print, and the web for twenty years. From flying with his father at age 5 to soaring as a VIP recently with the Navy's Blue Angels and USAF Thunderbirds, Charles continues to enjoy all aspects of flight.