Why is the Thunderbird an Important Symbol in the World of Aviation? The Thunderbird is an important symbol in Native American mythology, particularly in tribes found throughout the Midwest, the Great Plains and the Northwest. Among several indigenous North American cultures, including the Sioux, Arapaho, Wichita, Ojibwe and Salish, this giant bird-like figure is considered responsible for the sound of thunder and large enough (in some mythology) to carry a killer whale in its talons, while having a wingspan the size of two canoes.
Many of these tribes’ totem poles depict the Thunderbird at the very top, indicating its importance among members. Depicted as a large raptor-like bird, complete with curled horns, featherless head, long legs and a stretched beak, the commanding Thunderbird is supposedly able to create the sound of thunder and shoot lightning from its eyes.
While it originated as Native American folklore, the Thunderbird has also become an important symbol in the world of aviation. For example, you may have heard of the United States Air Force (USAF) Thunderbirds, the aerial acrobats that perform demonstrations across the globe. The squadron’s name is taken from this same legendary creature. Beyond the obvious ability to fly, there are several other reasons the Thunderbird is important in the world of aviation.
The Thunderbird Represents Power, Protection and Strength
Power, protection and strength are all desirable characteristics of a good pilot. And, among Native Americans, the Thunderbird is considered one of the most powerful spirits – one that can transform from bird to man, by simply removing its ‘mask’ to reveal a human head, and taking off its feathers like one would an overcoat or cape. The symbol of the thunderbird depicts a strong, powerful creature, something that can be easily correlated to modern aircraft today. Whether it be commercial aircraft, small private jets, or military aircraft, most airplanes want to be associated with these qualities, and the thunderbird is a long-standing symbol of power in the skies.
The Thunderbird is a Force to Be Reckoned With
Perhaps the USAF named its squad of acrobatic fighter jets after the Thunderbird because of how it’s depicted in Native American tales. Creating giant claps of thunder with a simple flap of its wings and having the ability to shoot bolts of lightning from its eyes, a possible reference to the impressive supersonic speed and ammunition capabilities of today’s advanced fighter jets like the F/A-18 Hornet. Some tribes also view the Thunderbird as an omen of war. When indigenous people heard thunder rumble from above, it was a sign to them that the spirits were warring in the skies. It makes sense then that a military aircraft squadron would want to associate themselves with this symbol of strength and military might.
The Thunderbird Separates the Heavens and Earth
High in the skies in the places that airplanes occupy, so too does the mythical Thunderbird. As the symbol of creation among several Native American tribes, the Thunderbird separates the heavens and the earth, and is the dominating force of all natural activity there. In this sense, it acts as the controller, creator and destroyer of nature, and must be honored and appeased. As a pilot, there may be no lesson that’s more important to learn than that of respecting the power of the skies and of course weather. As one of the dominating forces in Native American mythology and certainly one of the most powerful creatures, its connection to today’s aircraft, and the power behind modern aviation are easy to see.
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