By Ryan Lengerich
The nation’s most elite air show act will reach Tucumcari — but the planes will never leave the runway.
The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds have officially canceled their performance at the Oct. 1 Rotary Club Air Show at the Tucumcari Municipal Airport. The Air Force will provide a two-Thunderbird standing display along with about seven Air Force personnel.
This is the first Thunderbird appearance at the annual event, which will continue as planned despite losing the main attraction.
The jets’ flight schedule has been suspended since the Sept. 14 Thunderbird crash at the Gunfighter Skies Air Show near Boise, Idaho. The pilot, Capt. Chris Stricklin, ejected just moments before the $18 million jet hit the ground and erupted into flames. Stricklin avoided major injury and the crowd was unharmed.
The cause of the crash remains under investigation. The pending results will determine the Thunderbirds’ air show future. Until then, event spectators will only see the jets at ground level.
“It is a setback. We were all geared up and ready to go to these shows,” said Staff Sgt. Brian Bahret of Air Force public affairs. “We just want to make sure we do everything right.”
The jets will not fly at this weekend’s Janesville, Wis., show and there has been no announcement for the Sept. 4-5 show in El Paso, Texas. The team has been practicing since Friday, including three Tuesday practices, but can’t move forward until the investigation is complete. Bahret said initial results must be filed 30 days after any crash.
Tucumcari show organizer Bob McClelland Jr. said the red tape involved with bringing in the air act was overwhelming. In addition to a 155-page manual, the Thunderbird team required a $6,000 refundable down payment, and a dozen 55-gallon barrels of smoke oil.
“Between all the work we have already done it is terribly frustrating,” McClelland said. “Especially since we were so ready for them.”
International Council of Air Shows president John Cudahy said he understands the anxiety spectators may have with the crash investigation’s pace.
“The Thunderbirds are an American icon and a critical part of the air show community,” Cudahy said. “When it comes to safety everybody believes it is important to get things right.”
Cudahy said for the Air Force to provide a static display is a “classy thing to do.”
But that is little consolation for McClelland who predicted the Thunderbirds to bring in about 30 percent more spectators than a typical show. He received an unusually high amount of interest from areas around Albuquerque and he expects ticket sales to out-of-town enthusiasts to be hurt most by the news.
McClelland said often times when an act cancels one year the show is made a priority the following year.
Bahret said Thunderbird team members will be as engaging as possible with the public at the static display. McClelland hopes that’s the case.
“I want them to talk to the kids,” McClelland said. “If those guys just knew how impressionable they were especially for the kids at that age.”
While the jets won’t fly, the show will go on as planned, and McClelland said having the Thunderbirds just 10 days from flight in Tucumcari is a testament to the show’s popularity growth.
“For them to even consider us is still an honor,” he said. “We have such a good show without the Thunderbirds it is unbelievable.”