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The Thunderbirds - About 1962


While I was operating the Austin Chamber of Commerce, one of our leaders, Ed St John, came to my office one day and said, "Austin needs some kind of festival."  He explained that Austin used to have a SanSan Festival and parade at San Jacinto Day, and a big Round Up Parade put on by the University-and others. But now there were none.

I talked to my staff about it, and they agreed. We held several small meetings of community leaders, and came up with the idea of a festival centered around water, of which we have a bunch, but the rest of the world thought of Texas as mostly desert country. Thus was born the Austin Aqua Festival.

We invited a member of the military from Bergstrom Air Force Base to be on the planning committee. He offered to try to get the famous Air Force precision flying team, the Thunderbirds, to perform during the festival. We really never expected it, but he was successful. When the day came, and they arrived, our Ford dealer, Bob Armstrong, had a Thunderbird convertible waiting for each pilot. They were impressed, and enjoyed it. Surprisingly, they accepted our offer the next year.

They arrived a couple of days early, and inquired what they might do to spend their time. Bob Ross, Manager of the Driskill Hotel, suggested that maybe they would like to fly down to Fort Clark at Bracketville for a night. Both the hotel and Fort Clark were owned by Brown and Root at the time.

The Thunderbird leader Major "Hoot" Gibson, somehow got permission to fly their whole group down. Bob Ross had assured them that there was a two mile landing strip at Fort Clark. I suppose that Hoot figured that a landing strip was logical since this was a Fort. Of course, he didn't realize that the Forts most active time was fighting Indians.

Their support planes were prop driven planes, one a C-47 "Goonybird", and the other a larger four engine plane. Bob Ross and I were riding in the "lead plane" as we flew down so that Bob could direct Hoot to the landing strip. Bob and I were both standing behind the pilots as Bob pointed out the landing strip - a two mile strip bulldozed out of the mesquite. No paving anywhere. Hoot asked, "What if it rains while we're here?" Bob said, "It ain't gonna rain."

So we circled for a landing, and just after we touched down, about 8 deer ran across in front of the plane. Hoot let out a hoot - wondering, I suppose what we had gotten him and his men into. We parked the plane, and the one following, amid great blasts of dust. When Hoot got out of the plane, there was a two wheeled, decorated cart with a large chair waiting for him, pulled by a donkey, and a large fancy sombrero for him to wear. His men loved it.

It turned out to be a great trip. The Thunderbirds enjoyed the evening dinner trip to Mexico, and a refreshing swim in the spring fed pool in the morning. After exploring the old Fort Clark, we returned to Austin in the afternoon. The Thunderbirds airshow the next day was great. Somehow they made an adjustment of their policy of not appearing in the same town in consecutive years. The Thunderbirds appeared at The Austin Aqua Festival every year. A little hospitality pays off.

Vic Mathias - April 11, 2010