Thunderbirds set to kick off 2011 European tour in Turkey

By on Monday, June 6th, 2011

The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds are practiced and ready to perform the first official demonstration of their 2011 European Tour.

The team brought 78 of its nearly 120 Airmen on the six-week, transcontinental trip, arriving earlier this week at Cigli AB, just outside of the western coastal city of Izmir.

“We are absolutely excited to be in Turkey,” said Lt. Col. Case Cunningham, the Thunderbirds commander and lead pilot. “It’s not often we get the opportunity to perform in a country that’s both so rich in history and such an important U.S. ally. It’s the perfect way to start this overseas tour.”

The Thunderbirds will be one of several aerobatic teams performing June 4 and 5 at the large-scale “Air Show Turkiye,” including Italy’s Frecce Tricolori, France’s Patrouille de France, the United Kingdom’s Red Arrows, Poland’s Bialo Czerwone Iskry, Croatia’s Krila Aluje, Spain’s Patrulla Aguila and Turkey’s own Turkish Stars.

The broad international showing is partly due to the coinciding 100th anniversary of the Turkish air force. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz confirmed the Thunderbirds’ participation directly to Gen. Hasan Aksay, commander of the Turkish air force, in a letter sent last October.

Turkey was one of the first countries to invest heavily in military aviation. The Turkish air force maintains a fleet of more than 1,000 aircraft — second-largest among NATO members — including 240 F-16 Fighting Falcons. The country is also the homeland of Sabiha Gokcen, the world’s first female aviator to fly in combat (in the late 1930s) and the only woman featured on the U.S. Air Force’s 1996 poster of “The 20 Greatest Aviators in History.”

General Schwartz, who traveled to Turkey to attend the Global Air Chiefs Conference and the air show, said the partnership between the U.S. and Turkey is key to preserving regional stability and deterring common threats.

“This relationship is all important,” the general said during a pre-show gathering of Thunderbirds and locally assigned 425th Air Base Squadron Airmen. “Turkey has one of the world’s greatest air forces, and we have a lot in common with them. On their hundredth anniversary, where else would we be?”

After the Turkish air show, the Thunderbirds will perform in Constanta, Romania, and then travel to seven more European countries before returning home to Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. In order, the show sites will be Jesolo AB, Italy; Karup AB, Denmark; Turku AB, Finland; Graf Igantievo AB, Bulgaria; Royal Air Force Waddington, U.K.; and Koksijde AB, Denmark.

This year marks the Thunderbirds’ 58th season as the Air Force’s premier jet demonstration team. From mid-March until mid-November every year, the team travels around the country and abroad, showcasing the integrity, selfless service and excellence embodied by American Airmen everywhere. Part of the unit’s mission is to represent the U.S. armed forces to foreign countries and project international goodwill.

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