Captain Joseph N. Peterson

Captain Joseph "Pete" Peterson was a pilot for the Thunderbird division of the United States Air Force. The Thunderbirds are the air demonstration squadron of the U.S. Air Force (USAF), based at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, Nevada. The squadron tours the United States and much of the world, performing aerobatic formation and solo flying in specially-marked USAF jet aircraft.

Officers serve a two-year assignment with the squadron, while enlisted personnel serve three to four. Replacements must be trained for about half of the team each year, providing a constant mix of experience. The squadron performs no more than 88 air demonstrations each year and has never canceled a demonstration due to maintenance difficulty.

In addition to their air demonstration responsibilities, the Thunderbirds are part of the USAF combat force and if required, can be rapidly integrated into an operational fighter unit. Since February 15, 1974 the Thunderbirds have been a component of the 57th Wing at Nellis Air Force Base.

In 1982 tragedy struck for thirty two year old Joseph Peterson and the Thunderbirds during pre-season training on January 18th. Climbing side-by-side for several thousand feet in a slow, backward loop, then hurtling down at more than 400 mph, leveling off at about 100 feet, in a maneuver called a "line-abreast loop," a malfunction in the lead plane, Thunderbird #1, occurred. Following their leader to the end, all four planes plowed in the ground. All four pilots were killed instantly: Major Norman L. Lowry, commander/leader, Captain Willie Mays, Captain Joseph N. "Pete" Peterson, and Captain Mark Melancon.

The cause of the crash was officially listed by the USAF as the result of a mechanical problem with the #1 aircraft's control stick actuator, resulting in insufficient back pressure by the formation leader on the T-38 control stick during the loop. Visually cueing off of the lead aircraft during formation maneuvering, the wing and slot pilots completely disregarded their positions relative to the ground. A five-page report of the mishap was published by Aviation Week & Space Technology in their issue dated May 17, 1982.

The team's activities were suspended for six months pending investigation of the crashes and review of the program. The "Diamond Crash," as it was later called, led to the Thunderbirds upgrading their T-38s to the frontline F-16A "Fighting Falcon" jet fighter, built by General Dynamics, for their performances.   In order to rebuild the team, the Air Force pulled several former Thunderbird pilots, who were still on active duty, to "come out of air show retirement", get qualified in flying the F-16A, and had them start flying in "two-ship" formations through all the aerobatic maneuvers, starting in August of 1982, and led by Major Jim Latham.

A memorial in honor of the fallen is located on the western wall of the North Las Vegas Police Department's headquarters.  At the United States Air Force Academy, a T-38 painted in Thunderbirds color scheme is dedicated to the team and its then-leader, Major Lowry.

Captain Joseph N. Peterson was born in 1950 in Tuskgee, Alabama to Joseph and Jessie Peterson of Hampton Virginia. He graduated from Auburn University in 1971 with a B.S Degree in marketing. He was commissioned as a second Lieutenant after completing the Air Force ROTC Program and earned his wings at William's Airforce Base where he later served as an instructor pilot and became chief of Training.

Captain "Pete" Peterson was a distinguished graduate of the Squadrons Officer Training School. He was later transferred to the Republic of Korea where he was an f-4E flight Commander as an air to air instructor pilot with over 3300 hours in Jet Aircraft. Peterson was in his second year with the Thunderbirds when his accident occurred.

Captain Peterson held several awards, including the Meritorious Service medal. He was survived by his wife Cecilia, and two children

Click on the links below for detailed information and photos on African American veterans who rose to the top of their field

Revolutionary & Civil War

The Revolutionary War set precedents for black military service. Both Africans and African Americans fought on both sides of this war, often as a means for a black slave to win his freedom.

World War I

When World War I broke out, there were four all-black regiments: the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry.

World War II

African Americans made up over one million of the more than 16 million U.S. men and women to serve in World War II. Some of these men served in infantry, artillery, and tank units.

Tuskegee Airmen

The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African American military aviators in the United States armed forces.

Vietnam War & Iraq

The Vietnam War saw the highest proportion of blacks ever to serve in an American war. During the height of the U.S. involvement blacks, who formed 11 percent of the American population, made up 12.6 percent of the soldiers in Vietnam.


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