THE THUNDER TIGERS

THE THUNDER TIGERS

by Sid Yahn

The Thunder Tigers aerobatic team had its beginnings in 1954. At that time, it was simply a part of the Chinese Air Force (CAF). Major Chow, Shih-lin, who later became a lieutenant general in the CAF, began developing a jet aerobatic team made up of four Republic F-84G Thunderjets, the main fighter aircraft in the CAF at that time. This was done without the approval of his superiors, whom in all likelihood would not have permitted such action.

At that time President Chiang, Kai-shek ruled Taiwan with a firm hand, making it very unlikely that any CAF commander would accept the potential risk involved. In those days, as one might imagine, when a Chinese military commander experienced difficulties, his military career would be in very serious jeopardy.

In 1955, a group of Americans, including a U.S. Senator, was visiting Tainan AB. The wing commander tasked Major Chow to lead a four-ship flyby while the Americans were touring the flightline. Imagine the base commanders reaction when Major Chow's flight, in a diamond formation, executed a roll over the flightline. The US Senator was apparently impressed and congratulated the base commander on the outstanding airmanship of the pilots involved.

This was probably the first time CAF pilots performed a formation aerobatic maneuver for spectators. This positive experience gave Tainan AB officials the courage to request permission from CAF Headquarters to develop an `official' aerobatic team, a request that was fortunately approved.

By this time Major Chow had been reassigned and Major Lo, Hwa-ping was the team leader. Major Lo had been flying the Slot during Major Chow's memorable flight over the Tainan flightline. The other pilots that day were: Captain Liang L on Right Wing, and Captain Leu T.W. on the Left Wing. At that time, the team had no name.

In 1956, when Colonel Yuan, Chin-hau was Tainan AB Commander, the team evolved from four to six, then nine aircraft, and still later to twelve aircraft. General Wang, Shu-ming, known as "Tiger Wang", then Commander In Chief of the CAF, issued a general order dated 6 June 1956, which officially named the team "The Thunder Tigers". Obviously the general liked the term `Tiger' and the names many implications.

The Thunder Tigers flew their first off-island performance on 15 December 1957 during the Phillippines International Air Show. A number of Air Force teams, approximately 8, from many nations participated. Due to poor weather conditions, all teams except for The Thunder Tigers, elected to perform only their low level routines.

The Thunder Tigers nine aircraft team, periodically penetrated the clouds while performing their over-the-top maneuvers, but did so with outstanding precision. Following their landing, the Tiger aircraft and pilots were mobbed by thousands of spectators at the Manila Airport. Police found it impossible to control the crowd. The Thunder Tigers were obviously the highlight of the show.

What was unique about the early Thunder Tigers was that all team members were line pilots assigned to a combat squadron, and aerobatic team demonstrations were in addition to normal duties. Initially, no special aircraft were assigned to the team. They flew whatever aircraft was in-commission that day. Pilots had no special flight suits or helmets, nor did the team aircraft have a special paint scheme. Of course, the big plus was that all the Thunder Tigers were excellent aviators.

In 1959, The Thunder Tigers converted to F-86 Sabres, being equipped with both F-86A and F models. It was during this period when they were invited to attend the 1959 World Congress of Flight at Nellis AFB. After arriving in the United States, the Tiger pilots flew F-86Fs borrowed from USAF units assigned to Williams AFB, AZ.

The Tiger pilots were delighted because all the aircraft were F-86F models. In Taiwan, the team flew both F-86A and F models, so it was probably a big challenge to fly good formation aerobatics with a mixture of hard and slat-winged aircraft. An interesting fact not known to many, is that upon arrival at Nellis, the Tigers had only an average of about 20 hours in F-86s. Captain Hsu, Ta-mu was one of the first Tigers to check out in the F-86 and he had only 42 hours in the aircraft.

Regardless, the team performed flawlessly at Nellis, where they were a real crowd pleaser. After the World Congress of Flight activities at Nellis, they returned to Williams AFB for another performance, this time for the USAF Tactical Air Command Commander. The team then flew to Andrews AFB, Maryland, and on 9 May 1959, they performed along with teams from a number of other nations.

The Thunder Tigers then proceeded to Hamilton AFB, California, flying their customary routine on 16 May 1959, but with a new wrinkle. The wide width of the Hamilton runway, about 200 feet, permitted the Tigers to execute an 11 ship formation takeoff!

This was the final Tigers performance in the US. Following the Hamilton show, the borrowed F-86Fs were returned to the USAF and the Tigers proceeded to Tokyo, Japan aboard a Military Air Transport Service aircraft. On 23 May 1959, President Chiang, Kai-Shek's private aircraft picked up the Thunder Tigers and returned them to Taipei. This unusual gesture reflected the high level of prestige the Tigers enjoyed throughout Taiwan. The Thunder Tigers continued to fly the F-86 until 1965 when they converted first to F-5As and then to F-5Es.

The F-86 played a major role within the CAF for many years. It was a CAF F-86 flight, led by Colonel Lee, Su-yuan, that shot down the first aircraft (a Red Chinese MiG-17) with an air to air missile, the GAR-8 or Aim-9 Sidewinder. On that day, Captain Chien, Yo-chan was Col. Lee's element leader. People still debate which pilot actually scored the first missile kill, since both pilots fired simultaneously and both missiles hit their targets.

As one might surmise, there are many interesting stories involving CAF Sabre pilots, many of which Sabre Jet Classics have already printed. For any aviation enthusiast, the grace and beauty of the F-86 in flight made watching a Thunder Tigers performance an unforgettable experience.


No portion of this article may be used or reprinted without permission from the President of the F-86 Sabre Pilots Association or the editor of Sabre Jet Classics magazine.


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