Would it be possible or practical for the US Air Force to replace the Thunderbird pilots with drones? The drones could perform more difficult maneuvers and do them more precisely.

The University of Pennsylvania is successfully working on small-scale formation flying.

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    $\begingroup$ Sorry, this is definitely an opinion storm in the making. Personally, I'd say "what's the point of formation drone flying, it's easy". VTC. $\endgroup$
    – Simon
    Commented Jun 15, 2015 at 21:33
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    $\begingroup$ Sure... as soon as they're trying to recruit drones to join the Air Force, instead of people. $\endgroup$
    – Ralph J
    Commented Jun 15, 2015 at 21:47
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    $\begingroup$ As a pilot, I view flight demonstration teams as a superb display of the skill of the pilots. Take the pilots out, and there would be no airmanship for me to be awed by. Perhaps if I were involved in the hardware and software development to enable drones to do that, I might then be able to generate more enthusiasm. $\endgroup$
    – Terry
    Commented Jun 15, 2015 at 22:30
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    $\begingroup$ @JanHudec please define "ages", since this is already occurring on a small scale. youtu.be/YQIMGV5vtd4?t=45s $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 16, 2015 at 0:01
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    $\begingroup$ @steampowered The Thunderbirds don't exist to fight wars. They exist to impress people. Drones are objectively worse at this than the badass military pilots with nerves of steel who can also stand and chat next to their planes before and after their performance. And they don't just exist to recruit fighter pilots; fighter pilots have never been the dominant portion of the air force. In fact, impressive stuff like that increases enlistment as well, and enlisted men aren't even eligible to fly planes. Basically, the Thunderbirds are just about the worst possible application of UAVs. $\endgroup$
    – cpast
    Commented Jun 16, 2015 at 1:20

3 Answers 3


Tight formation flying can be done with stock aircraft and skilled pilots, but drones would need additional sensors and new code in their FCS. Also, you can fly aerobatics even with gliders, but only when a decent power-to-weight ratio is reached, aerobatics becomes a spectator sport. I think it is frivolous for the US Air Force to pay for the development and additional equipment to make drones fly aerobatic displays, but few Air Forces are known for an enlightened budget discipline. I expect, however, that this will be added first by a company producing drones, and for demonstration and marketing purposes, and then the taxpayer will fund this indirectly.

Formation flying was a needed skill for bomber pilots, back then when their bundled defensive weapons provided the best protection against fighter attacks, and aerobatic flying was and still is valuable for fighter pilots. In the days of missiles and UAVs, neither formation flying nor aerobatics are necessary skills anymore, so in a way aerobatic formations are a quaint relic from the last millennium.

To answer the "could" aspect of your question: No, not directly. This would need modifications to existing drones.

To answer the "ever" aspect: Once the services field UCAVs (unmanned combat drones) with a good power-to-weight ratio, having them fly aerobatic displays looks almost unavoidable, but I expect it will not be the Air Force, but the marketing department of a big contractor driving this.

  • $\begingroup$ apparently the USAF is already flying F-16's unmanned youtube.com/watch?v=ewoCUFne3MI $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 22, 2015 at 21:15
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    $\begingroup$ @steampowered … to then shoot at them, yes. Nothing new here. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 6:34
  • $\begingroup$ @ Peter Kämpf Remote controlling an aircraft for targeting in general at Tyndall is not new - RF-4 have been used for many years. But the RQ-F16 is relatively new. First one 2 years ago. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 15:18

Like others have said, the Thunderbirds mission is recruitment. A drone formation is absolutely possible and would be quite the show, but it would not do much for recruiting civilians if the drones were the only part of the show.

Some might suggest using RPAs to bring a human aspect back into it, but that would not be a great idea either, at least with current technology. Formation flying relies heavily on recognizing small discrepancies and making small corrections to achieve that "locked" appearance. RPAs, like the MQ-9, have low latency if the operator and aircraft are in the same area, but there still is some latency with the signal being transmitted, translated, read, and displayed. In addition, unless the operator is wearing some sort of augmented/virtual reality headset and the aircraft has some 180+ degree camera, the spatial awareness will be severely degraded. Finally, our current RPAs are loiter aircraft, so they are really not fit for being in formation. What I mean is that the wide wings and light-weight design make the aircraft prone to the effects of turbulence, convection, probably even the propwash of the other aircraft in formation.

All that being said, I think once we get the jet-propelled drones more developed and trusted, we might be seeing them in airshows. The MQ-25, a refueling, carrier-based drone, would be a prime candidate for a refueling demo (the ones where the fuel recipient isn't actually connected).

  • $\begingroup$ Who said anything about replacing them? Why not have both? For lower budget, smaller shows, send in the drones! Absolutely love the formation photo. Why not? $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 14, 2018 at 3:38
  • $\begingroup$ @RobertDiGiovanni , the original poster alluded to replacing them. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 15, 2018 at 20:42
  • $\begingroup$ Copy that, I am offering an alternative. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 15, 2018 at 22:38
  • $\begingroup$ Then the phrase is "Who says we have to replace them?", not "Who said anything about replacing them?". Nobody said we have to replace them, but OP clearly brought it up as a possibility. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 16, 2018 at 13:52
  • $\begingroup$ I like the design so much, why not put pilots in them? $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 16, 2018 at 14:22

UAVs and UCAVs can be programmed to fly in formation as has already been demonstrated. There may be military applications for this capability. A tactic used by Luftwaffe "sturmgruppe" units against US bomber formations in World War Two was the "company front" assault in which the heavily armoured FW190 fighters, flying in a close line abreast formation, would approach a bomber formation from the rear, dividing the defensive firepower, and then break up at the last moment to attack individual bombers. UCAVs could potentially use similar tactics effectively against enemy ground, naval or air forces in some situations.


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