Aug 4th, 2020

Thunderbirds & Cheyenne Frontier Days: Cowboys and Rodeos

Posted in Aviation News

The skies over the land of Cowboys and Rodeos were absent of the Thunderbirds for one of the first times in decades in late July.  The Thunderbirds did not perform at Cheyenne Frontier Days.

Cheyenne Frontier Days

Cheyenne Frontier Days is a grand celebration of western life held every year in Cheyenne Wyoming since 1897.  The highlight of the show is the rodeo, like the Rose Bowl, it is known as the Daddy of ‘em All. 

World War I, The Spanish Flu, The Great Depression, and World War II.  None were strong enough to halt the celebration. Everything changed this year.  For the first time in 123 years, Frontier Days were cancelled.

The Thunderbirds


The Thunderbirds first appeared over the skies of Frontier Days in 1953, it was their first season in operation.  In the early days the Air Force’s flagship demonstration team flew the F-84.  By 1956 they switched to the F-100 Super Sabre.  The 1969 season let the team to transition to the F-4, then the top fighter in both the Air Force and Navy.


The team often stayed at the Little American Hotel where they gladly signed autographs, even during breakfast, for adoring fans like my two aunts.

Although, the F-4 is a classic jet fighter, it was not the most fuel efficient.  Pilots referred to the beloved aircraft as a “brick that can fly”.  The Oil Crisis of 1973 led to the team to transition to the more fuel-efficient T-38 for the 1974 season.


The low point of the Thunderbirds at Frontier Days occurred three years later.  On July 25, 1977 a Thunderbird, Captain Charlie Carter, was killed during the demonstration. 

The Crash of 1982

The Thunderbirds experienced a tragic crash during training in January of 1982.  The lead aircraft collided with the ground and three wingmen followed the lead into the dirt.  As a result, the team missed the Air Force Academy Graduation of 1982.  It was replaced by an inventory flyby of the Air Force. 


The team returned to the air for 1983, in a brand-new aircraft, the F-16 Fighting Falcon.  The Fighting Falcon is the official name, but the pilots refer to it as the Viper.  That was the name preferred among pilots when the aircraft was christened.  However, the top Air Force Brass insisted on the Falcon.

F-16 “Viper”

Their first season back resulted in a return to Cheyenne Frontier Days.  The celebration always occurs the last full week of July. 

The Streak is Broken

The team continued to return to Frontier Days each year.  I personally witnessed an excellent show in clear blue skies in 2002.  The streak was finally broken in 2013 when the season was cancelled due to the United States Fiscal Cliff.  The year 2017 saw the show cancelled due to in climate weather. 

Frontier Days was cancelled earlier this year due to COVID-19.  However, the team still planned to come an perform as a morale boost in July.  They cancelled in mid-July when a Thunderbird mechanic came down with the Corona Virus.

The citizens of Wyoming, the spectators at Frontier Days and aviation fans across the country hope they return in 2021!

Cowgirls watch the Thunderbirds at Frontier Days

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