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The Story Behind The Thunderbirds’ Black-Tailed F-4 Phantom And “Captain Carbon”

The introduction of tubofan engines and smokeless combusters, the latter of which were also added to later versions of the J79, among others, eventually obviated the need for the black tail. The practice was gone by the time the Thunderbirds began flying the far more anemic T-38 Talon jet trainer in 1974. Each of those jets had a pair of J85 afterburning turbojets. These engines were also just substantially less powerful, but also more economical than any variant of the J79. With their afterburners going, they are rated at around 2,900 pounds of thrust.

The practice of painting the slot jet’s tail black did not return when the Thunderbirds began flying F-16 Vipers in 1983, either, which leveraged the far less smokey F100 turbofan. It’s not clear if that pilot in that position still gets the Captain Carbon nickname, either.

It’s also interesting to note that the Navy’s flight demonstration team, the Blue Angels, do not ever appear to have used a black tail or any similar changes to the standard paint scheme for their slot jets, including their F-4s

Today, the black-tailed Thunderbirds, a creation of crew chiefs fed up with having to constantly clean soot off the slot jet, are just another interesting piece of the team’s storied history.

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