Thunderbirds co-founder always wanted to be a pilot

Bob Kanaga will return to his hometown of Derby this weekend.

He'll return in his son's plane and may pilot a portion of the trip, but not the landings.

"It's his plane, and it's like that western song goes, 'You got to know when to fold them,' " said Kanaga, 85, who was instrumental in forming the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds aerial demonstration team.

Weather permitting, he will watch as the jets take to the sky at McConnell Air Force Base's open house and air show this weekend.

More than five decades ago, Kanaga was instrumental in forming the Air Force's official air demonstration team when he was stationed at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona.

Kanaga grew up in Derby during the Great Depression, in the years when aviation was gaining a strong foothold in Wichita's economy. He was fascinated by Stearman's airplanes and B-17 Beech Staggerwings and grew up wanting to be a pilot, said Kanaga, who now lives in Mesa, Ariz.

When he was 16, he spent $15 so he and his brother could take a 20-minute flight over Wichita. He was hooked.

When he was 18, Kanaga enlisted in the Army Air Force. He received his wings Aug. 27, 1946, at Williams Air Force Base near Phoenix. After training, he joined the 20th Fighter Group where he flew P-47 Thunderbolts.

At the time of the Korean War, Kanaga flew with the 8th Fighter Group, flying 125 missions. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal, the Purple Heart and the Korean Presidential Unit Citation.

In 1953, while stationed at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, he suggested and was eventually given permission to form an aerial exhibition team using the F-84G Thunderjet.

At Luke, Kanaga had become acquainted with twins Buck and Bill Pattillo, who had flown aerial demonstration flights under Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower after World War II while stationed in Germany.

"I knew they had flown and knew Gen. Eisenhower quite well," Kanaga said. "I said we need a team here to show what the airplane will do and how pilots are trained."

And thus, the Thunderbirds came into being.

The slot position — the plane sandwiched between both wingmen and behind the leader, one of the most dangerous spots — was assigned to Kanaga.

He went on to create the manuals and guidelines for the Thunderbirds.

In 2003, the Thunderbirds celebrated their 50th anniversary and were inducted into the International Council of Air Shows in Las Vegas.

And, in 2004, Kanaga received the Kansas Governor's Aviation Honor Award by the Kansas Aviation Museum.

"The Thunderbirds symbolize not only all the training pilots undergo, but the discipline," Kanaga said. "I think they are a symbol of patriotism."

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