October 1949, Gütersloh, West Germany—The U.S. Air Forces Europe (USAFE) flight demonstration team, the Skyblazers, held its first public demonstration at a Royal Air Force base in occupied Germany. The team’s close-in aerobatics wowed audiences throughout Europe and North Africa until it was disbanded in 1962. In the interim, two of its founding members would go on to form the nucleus of the Thunderbirds, the legendary Air Demonstration Squadron that continues to tour the world.

The Skyblazers rose from the ranks of the 36th Fighter Group, which was assigned in August 1948 to Fürstenfeldbruck Air Base, just west of Munich. Built in the ’30s, Fürstenfeldbruck had been the pride of the Luftwaffe during the war; now it was playing host to the 36th and its new Lockheed F-80 Shooting Stars. The F-80 was the Air Force’s first operational jet fighter, and one of the reasons the USAFE authorized the creation of the Skyblazers was to demonstrate the capabilities of jets to European pilots and officials.

Over the decade or so of their existence, the Skyblazers rotated through many different pilots, as well as many different aircraft. The team transitioned to the F-84 Thunderjet in 1950 (at which time the 36th was redesignated a fighter-bomber wing), the F-86F Sabrejet in 1955 and finally the F-100C Super Sabre in 1956. This march of progress was brutally interrupted in May 1952, however, when Captain John P. O’Brien, one of the team’s founding members, was killed during a routine flight at RAF Manston in England.

After that crash, all Skyblazers events were temporarily suspended. The team was being reassigned to a new unit as well, and it was during this volatile period that two of its founding members were assigned to training duty at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. Lieutenants Charles C. “Buck” Pattillo and Cuthbert A. “Bill” Pattillo were identical twins, and both had flown Mustangs in the European theater of World War II. In 1953, putting their Skyblazers experience to good use, Bill flew right wing and Buck flew left wing in the first incarnation of the now-legendary Thunderbirds flight team. Both would go on to finish their amazing careers as general officers.

As the 1960s began, it became clear that the Skyblazers’ days were numbered. The stateside Thunderbirds were by that time flying F-100Ds with in-flight refueling capacity, meaning they could now reach once-remote European airshows themselves. After finishing out the 1961 season, the Skyblazers were officially disbanded in January 1962—but only after a decade of touring that laid the groundwork for the famous team that followed.

Eyes in the Sky

March 24, 1977, Tinker AFB, Okla.—Boeing delivers the first E-3 Sentry AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) to the U.S. Air Force. The final aircraft was shipped in June 1984. With the exception of one plane lost to a crash and another used for testing, the other 32 original E-3s are still flying for the USAF, as vital “eyes in the sky” in hot spots around the world.

The E-3 Sentry could never boast of a cutting-edge airframe or much visual appeal—it is a modified version of Boeing’s commercial 707 jetliner. And it is hardly bristling with the latest weaponry; in fact, it is entirely unarmed. What distinguishes the E-3, and has made it vital to operations for 30 years, is its “brain”—the 30-foot-wide, 6-foot-thick rotating dome hovering over the fuselage that houses its radar systems. This radar apparatus—along with the crew and software that analyze the data— supplies a 360-degree view over a minimum range of 250 miles, distinguishing between friend and foe and (unlike ground-based radar) identifying targets no matter how low they are flying.

The impetus for the E-3 Sentry project was the threat of longrange Soviet bombers, and the need for the earliest possible warning of their approach. The program was almost scuttled before it even got off the ground; by the 1970s, the Soviets’ warhead-tipped ICBMs had supplanted their bombers as the most serious nuclear threat to the U.S. mainland. Over the objections of some lawmakers, who thought they might be throwing money at an already obsolete aircraft, the E-3 Sentry’s mission was adjusted to include a command-and-control component, providing data in real time to pilots in the air as well as to commanders on the ground. In that capacity the Sentry remains deployed around the world today, not only for the U.S. Air Force but also for NATO and a handful of foreign air forces. Though in the midst of a systems overhaul intended to provide new mission computing equipment and upgraded radar, navigation and communications systems, the E-3 isn’t slated to retire anytime soon. After 30 years of serving in every possible environment, the AWACS have long since proven their ability to survey and direct the action from above.

 

Originally published in the September 2007 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.