What’s the Significance of the Thunderbird in Aviation?

When you hear the term “thunderbird,” your mind likely jumps to the luxury car made by the Ford Motor Company in the 1950’s, which the Beach Boys sang about. Or maybe you think about aviation, and the United States Air Force Thunderbirds, which are a demonstration squadron who perform air shows in a similar vein as the Blue Angels.

Even if you’ve never had flying lessons, you’ve likely heard the term “thunderbird” before, but you may not know where it originated and its significance in the world of aviation. Read on to learn more.


Picture a totem pole in your head for a moment. If you’ll recall, almost all totem poles feature a large bird-like creature on top with its wings spread out, giving the totem pole its trademark cross or “T” shape. The avian creature on top is a thunderbird.

A thunderbird is a creature featured prominently in Native American folklore. It is said to be a gigantic, supernatural, raptor-like bird that possessed colossal strength and power. When a thunderbird flapped its wings, the sound of thunder would follow.

Thunderbirds were also known for shooting lightning out of their eyes and bringing rain. Legend had it that a thunderbird was large enough to carry a whale in its talons while flying.


The thunderbird is one of the most revered and feared entities in several Native American cultures, and its place at the top of the totem pole signifies its importance to many of the tribes that believe in it.

They believe the thunderbird holds spiritual powers while symbolizing the following traits: power, strength, nature, war, victory, leadership and nobility. Because of what it represents, the thunderbird has become a symbol synonymous with aviation.

Air force and aviation

The thunderbird represents power, strength and leadership, which are all characteristics that an air force would want to embody. It also symbolizes omnipotence, or the ability to see everything, due to its spiritual nature.

During war, an air force wants to be seen as ubiquitous, as being everywhere, seeing all and having the ability to reach and hit any target, so the thunderbird as a symbol makes sense.

In addition to all of that, there’s a literal comparison to be made as well. The noise a plane makes as its flying by might be described as “thunderous,” and as you’ll recall, it was believed that the thunderbird could shoot lightning out of its eyes. A fighter jet with artillery capabilities would be reminiscent of that.

The congruence between the thunderbird and air force proved to be apt, and stuck, extending to all types of planes once the connection was made.

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