Desert Thunder Returns to Palm Springs

The Red Star Pilots’ Association ( held its eighth annual Desert Thunder Tactical Formation Flying Clinic at the Jacqueline Cochran Regional Airport (KTRM) in Thermal, California, which was hosted again this year by the folks at Tradition Aviation. Just over forty pilots and twenty airplanes participated in the two-day training program, flying Yaks, Nanchang CJ-6s, and T-34s.

On Friday morning, two-ship flights practiced visual lookout and defensive reactions while flying through designated hostile air space, vulnerable to attack by adversary aircraft. After noon, each pair of aircraft practiced a close-air support mission to attack a target designated by a combat-experienced Marine forward air controller (FAC), who communicated the target description and attack instructions to the flight as they approached the target area.

Saturday’s additional adversary air involved a P-51 Mustang—flown by Doug “Smooth” Mathews—and an F4F Wildcat—flown by Carter “Polecat” Teeters—defending an airfield deep in enemy territory from an interdiction attack profile, followed by a close-air support mission at a location different from Friday’s target..

Red Star pilots check out the adversary air

An Aerospatiale Gazelle helicopter joined this year’s activities and led a combat search-and-rescue mission (combat SAR) to pick up a downed pilot behind enemy lines. The rescue effort consisted of the Gazelle SAR helicopter along with two rescue combat air patrol aircraft (RESCAP) and two rescue escort (RESCORT) aircraft to defend the helicopter from air attacks and suppress enemy ground activity in the area of the downed pilot.

Pilots briefing for the helicopter escort SAR mission

As usual, Darrel “Condor” Gary, Duke “Maddawg” Molter, and Rachelle Gary organized the event logistics and social activities, while Mike “Beav” Carter coordinated the air-to-air training scenarios and Mo Allee took care of the air-to-ground training and served as the ground FAC for close-air support missions.

Comprehensive rules-of-engagement (ROE) created a safe environment for all the participants. Each pilot had to be Formation and Safety Team (FAST) qualified to participate. Friendly and adversary aircraft were assigned block altitudes to maintain until visual contact was established, and defensive reactions were limited to a maximum of 180 degrees of turn. There were no dogfights. Close-air support aircraft could not drop their five-pound flour bombs until the FAC cleared them hot after determining they were on the proper attack heading pointed at the designated target. Formal debriefings occurred after every flight, with modified stories later in the evening. This allowed all participants to have “serious fun”—Desert Thunder’s motto.



About Rich Martindell

Instrument flight instructor (CFII), rated airline transport pilot (ATP), former military instructor pilot in F-4s and F-15s. Aircraft accident investigator and flight safety consultant. FAA Safety Team Lead Representative.
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