Robert L. Kanaga – Instrumental in the Creation of the USAF Thunderbirds!

Robert KangaBy Charles Kanaga

Robert L. Kanaga is a native Kansan, born in Winfield in 1925. He grew up in a family of three brothers and two sisters in Derby, Kansas, graduating from Derby High School in 1941. Being raised in the shadow of Wichita Aircraft Companies, he would often watch the flights of the BI-winged Stearman and Beech Model 17 Staggerwing, and wished he could be a pilot, too.

At the age of 15, he would pedal his bicycle to the Wichita Municipal Airport across from the Stearman factory. He purchased a flight in a Staggerwing for a flight over Wichita and dreamed of being a fighter pilot. When he turned 18 in 1943, he joined the United States Army Air Corps at Strother Field in Winfield, Kansas. Bob Kanaga completed his pilot training at Williams Field Air Base in Mesa, Arizona, in 1946. After receiving his wings, he went to the Pacific island of Guam with the 20th Fighter Group where he flew P-47 Thunderbolt aircraft. While in Guam, he enjoyed an athletic program playing both basketball and football.

In 1950, he volunteered for combat duty with the 8th Fighter Group where he flew 125 missions, some of them in P-51 Mustangs, and the F-84 fighter plane. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal, the Purple Heart, and the Korean Presidential Unit Citation.

By this time, Kanaga had obtained the rank of Captain in the United States Air Force, and was assigned to Luke Air Force Base as an instructor pilot. While assigned to Luke, he was instrumental in the formation of a new aerial exhibition team called, "The Thunderbirds", using the F-84 aircraft.

With no previous experience in demonstration flying, he helped to create the manuals and established guidelines for the Air Force Thunderbirds to create the dazzling aerial displays for which they would become world famous. Captain Kanaga was chosen to fly the "slot" position in the four-plane formation, a more perilous position at the rear of the diamond. In September of 1953, only four months after its initial formation, the Thunderbird team appeared at McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita for their aerial demonstration show.

One of the highlights in his Thunderbird career, besides performing for thousands of spectators, was meeting celebrities such as the famous movie star, Jimmy Stewart.

Following his flying career with the Thunderbirds, he continued to fly for the Arizona Air National Guard, where he was honored as the most outstanding Arizona Guardsman. His Guard unit was activated and he was sent to Germany to fly the F-104 Star Fighter escorting military cargo and civilian passenger aircraft in the Berlin Corridor.

More recently, the original Thunderbird Team was inducted into the International Council of Air Shows in 2002. The following year, the Thunderbirds observed their 50th Anniversary of their formation of 1953, and were inducted into the Thunderbird Hall of Fame in Las Vegas, Nevada, the home of The Thunderbirds.

Retired from 32 years of military flying, Bob Kanaga entered civilian flying jobs with several interesting jobs in fighting forest fires, charter flights in Beech King Air’s, and corporate flying in Cessna Citations. Recently celebrating his 50th wedding anniversary, Bob and his wife enjoy their grandchildren and life in the desert of Mesa, Arizona.