The Thunderbirds are back in 2021 with new tricks to perform, after the coronavirus pandemic forced the aerial demonstration team to go dark for most of its 2020 season.

This is the first time in four decades that the team of six F-16 Fighting Falcons has changed its routine, the Thunderbirds said this week.

“With the cancellation of the 2020 air show season, the team focused its efforts on saluting first responders and enhancing the aerial demonstration for fans,” the team said in a video posted to social media.

Condensed into a 50-minute show instead of 90 minutes, the new routine’s formations aim to tell a story of patriotism, American ingenuity, teamwork and inspiration, the service said. Performers hope the show will evoke emotion and better entertain audiences.

As part of the revamped maneuvers, Thunderbirds pilots will add a “stinger break cross,” where one jet loops away from a few others in a plume of smoke, and a “low bomb burst with hit,” where five planes “explode” in a starburst pattern, then zoom back toward each other.

Former Disney employees weighed in on how to script the show to keep crowds engaged again and again, in part by cutting repetitive moves out of the program, The Drive reported Tuesday.

A ground show put on by maintainers is now a more visual experience for the audience as well, adding more physical movement to the routine rather than relying on words.

It’s a more streamlined version of the drill, and “showcases the rapid generation capabilities of maintenance personnel supporting Air Force fighter aircraft during alert situations and combat,” the Thunderbirds said in a Friday release.

The fresh moves debut this weekend at the Cocoa Beach Air Show in Florida on April 17-18. After a quiet 2020, the Thunderbirds now have appearances scheduled through the end of 2022.

“The best action is going to be right there on the show line,” Thunderbirds commander Col. John Caldwell said. “The crowd will feel the thunder in their chest by hearing the jets roar, seeing the speed, seeing the motion, and seeing the precision of our team while flying 18 inches apart and project the power, pride, and professionalism of the U.S. Air Force to the American public.”

Thunderbirds 2021 air shows

♦ April 17-18: Cocoa Beach, Florida – “Cocoa Beach Air Show”

♦ May 1-2: St. Joseph, Missouri – “Sound of Speed Airshow & 139AW Open House”

♦ May 8-9: Barksdale AFB, Louisiana – “Defenders of Liberty Air & Space Show”

♦ May 26: Colorado Springs, Colorado – “USAFA Graduation 2021 Flyover”

♦ May 29-30: Wantagh, New York – “Bethpage Airshow at Jones Beach”

♦ June 5-6: Smyrna, Tennessee – “The Great Tennessee Air Show”

♦ June 19-20: Ocean City, Maryland – “OC Air Show”

♦ July 10-11: Dayton, Ohio – “Dayton Air Show”

♦ July 17-18: Binghamton, New York – “Greater Binghamton Air Show”

♦ July 24-25: Milwaukee, Wisconsin – “Milwaukee Air & Water Show”

♦ July 28: F.E. Warren AFB, Wyoming – “Cheyenne Frontier Days”

♦ July 31-August 1: McMinnville, Oregon – “Oregon International Air Show”

♦ August 18: Atlantic City, New Jersey – “Thunder Over The Boardwalk Air Show”

♦ September 4-6: Cleveland, Ohio – “Cleveland National Air Show”

♦ September 11-12: Portsmouth, New Hampshire – “Pease Open House”

♦ September 18-19: Reno, Nevada – “National Championship Air Races”

♦ September 25-26: Mather, California – “California Captial Air Show”

♦ October 2-3: San Juan, Puerto Rico – “2021 Puerto Rico International Air Show”

♦ October 9-10: Houston, Texas – “Wings Over Houston Air Show”

♦ October 16-17: Sanford, Florida – “Central Florida Air & Space Show”

♦ October 23-24: Lancaster, California – “Los Angeles County Air Show”

♦ October 30-31: Salinas, California – “California International Air Show”

♦ November 6-7: Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona – “Thunder and Lightning over Arizona”

Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.

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