Thunderbirds Thursday: Introducing the Thunderbirds

Whenever and wherever disaster strikes, International Rescue can be counted on to answer the call. The organisation’s exhilarating array of technologically diverse rescue machines, each designed for uniquely different purposes, is constantly shown to be full of surprises. You never quite know which pod vehicle will emerge out of Thunderbird 2’s pod or what thrilling gadgetry FAB 1 will deploy when targeting enemy agents.

Throughout Thunderbirds, we regularly see the International Rescue craft showcase features that are unique to a variety of episodes. However, each Thunderbird only gets a first chance to make a first impression. This Thunderbirds Thursday, we’re examining how each core Thunderbird craft is introduced in their respective debut episodes!

Thunderbird 1

Thunderbird 1 makes a dramatic entrance at London Airport.

Thunderbird 1 is the second ever International Rescue craft to see danger zone action. In the series’ pilot episode, Trapped in the Sky, the atomic airliner Fireflash falls victim to sabotage by the nefarious master criminal, the Hood. Placing a bomb aboard the aircraft’s landing gear that will explode if the craft’s landing gear touches the ground, the Fireflash’s crew and passengers face certain destruction. Making matters worse is the craft’s highly sensitive atomic reactor, radiation from which will infect the crew if the craft stays in the air for too long. Only International Rescue has the means to save the passenger craft!

As we’ve previously explored, Trapped in the Sky does a superbly effective job of laying the groundwork for how International Rescue functions as an organisation, from its advanced machinery swooping in to save the day to maintaining its secrecy as an independent outfit. Part of the episode’s role is to showcase what its featured Thunderbird machines are capable of, and that includes highlighting Thunderbird 1’s role as International Rescue’s rapid response vehicle. Thunderbird 1’s arrival at London Airport gifts us with one of the series’ most memorable scenes as the London Airport crew reacts with extreme bewilderment and suspicion at this supersonic rocket’s unexpected arrival!

Trapped in the Sky then showcases Thunderbird 1’s speed and efficiency when reaching the danger zone. From here, pilot Scott Tracy takes command of the rescue operation, directing proceedings with his Mobile Control Unit. From here, the episode’s events definitely swing towards highlighting Scott’s leadership rather than Thunderbird 1’s abilities. Future episodes would have terrific fun showcasing Thunderbird 1’s eclectic array of rescue and security features, from sonar equipment to machine guns! Topped off by its iconic launch sequence and stylish appearance at London Airport, making use of its unique VTOL capabilities, Thunderbird 1 makes a pleasantly solid debut in the series.

Thunderbird 2

Thunderbird 2 touches down at the danger zone to help rescue the Fireflash.

International Rescue’s heavy duty transporter also makes its debut in Trapped in the Sky. Piloted by Virgil Tracy, Thunderbird 2’s role is to bring the Elevator Cars to the danger zone in an effort to allow the Fireflash to make a secure landing without having to use its corrupted landing gear. Thunderbird 2’s own arrival at London Airport, accompanied by Barry Gray’s soaring soundtrack, delivers another of the series’ most iconic moments. Virgil’s deployment of the Elevator Cars is a mark of pre-triumph before the rescue’s even been successfully pulled off. After London Airport’s own failure to try and place a man aboard Fireflash in the hopes of disarming the bomb, Thunderbird 2’s arrival with just the rescue gear that the situation needs stands as a genuinely fist-pumping moment of adrenaline for the episode.

Rather like Thunderbird 1, other episodes would go on to showcase Thunderbird 2’s own unique abilities away from its primary function as a transporter. However, Thunderbird 2 clearly remains the standout winner in Trapped in the Sky. Ironically, we get to see a wider sense of scale in Thunderbird 2’s contribution to the series within the respective debuts of Thunderbirds 3 and 4. The Himalayan snowstorms of Sun Probe provide a dramatic backdrop for Thunderbird 2 to take up a strategic position and deploy the Transmitter Truck when Virgil and Brains attempt to rescue the runaway Sun Probe rocket. Later, in The Mighty Atom, Thunderbird 2’s release of pod 4 offers a dynamic seascape setting for capturing how Thunderbirds 2 and 4 interact with each other.

Armed with its much-loved launch sequence, Thunderbird 2’s mightily impressive introduction in Trapped in the Sky serves as a firm reminder as to why the transporter craft remains one of Thunderbirds’ most adored vehicles.

Thunderbird 3

Thunderbird 3 races across the stars to help the Sun Probe.

Thunderbird 3’s debut as a rescue vehicle comes in the series’ fourth episode, Sun Probe. Thunderbird 3’s introduction is a far more curiously significant affair than Trapped in the Sky. While Thunderbirds 1 and 2 go on to become Thunderbirds‘ star vehicular attractions, the series rarely gives as much focus to International Rescue’s space rescue craft. Thunderbird 3 may not be as visually multi-faceted as Thunderbirds 1 and 2, but it’s not given as much focus elsewhere in the series.

In Sun Probe, both Thunderbirds 2 and 3 perform a two-pronged rescue attempt when the Sun Probe rocket risks being dragged into the sun during its mission to collect a shard of the massive star. With the youngest Tracy brother, Alan Tracy, in command of International Rescue’s spacecraft and accompanied by Scott and engineering assistant Tin Tin, Thunderbird 3 performs a dangerously tense rescue mission. Thunderbird 3 is pushed to its operational limits by catching up to the Sun Probe without risking getting too close to the sun itself. The plan is to remotely trigger the Sun Probe’s retro rockets into life via radio beam, an opportunity then to showcase Thunderbird 3’s navigation and transmission ingenuity.

Thunderbird 3’s method of saving the Sun Probe carries distinct echoes of how the Elevator Cars came to the aid of Fireflash. In both cases, International Rescue utilises its own fantastic technology to bring both vehicles to safety. Perhaps the events of Trapped in the Sky served as a springboard of inspiration for this follow-up? Intriguingly, where the Thunderbirds blast off into action following London Airport’s own failed efforts to bring the Fireflash to safety, we have a reversed situation here. When Thunderbird 3 eventually succeeds in dragging the Sun Probe off course, TB3 itself slips into the path of the sun! Already situated in the Himalayas, Virgil and Brains must perform their own haphazard attempts to save Alan, Scott, and Tin Tin. Sun Probe gives us a thrillingly daring debut for Thunderbird 3, reminding us that even International Rescue sometimes needs its own saviours.

Thunderbird 4

Thunderbird 4 prepares to destroy the sea water intake of an irrigation plant that’s about to explode.

Thunderbird 4 receives the most delayed introduction of all the main Thunderbird machines. International Rescue’s submarine rescue craft makes its first appearance in the series’ sixth episode, The Mighty Atom. Here, Thunderbird 4 swings into action by cutting off the seawater intake of an atomic irrigation plant, which has been sabotaged to go into critical meltdown by the Hood. Underwater sequences were now a well-oiled machine from A.P. Films thanks to Thunderbirds predecessor, Stingray. However, much like Thunderbird 3, imaginative underwater set pieces would be in short supply for the series, as Thunderbirds 1 and 2 proved more popular in future stories being created for the series.

Nevertheless, even though the craft doesn’t actually appear until well into the episode’s second half, Thunderbird 4 gets heavily involved in the action. Piloted by Gordon Tracy, Thunderbird 4 doesn’t work independently, unlike Thunderbird 3’s performance in Sun Probe. Rather, Thunderbird 4 works in conjunction with Scott and Virgil, who are stationed at the irrigation plant, closing the reactor rods down piece by piece, offering us a handsome balance of human and mecha-driven rescue. After a spectacular introduction by being dropped into the oceans by Thunderbird 2 and blasting down into the murky depths below, a tense few moments ensue as Gordon must wait to detonate the seawater intake at the precise moment when Scott commands him to.

Thunderbird 4 makes full use of its compact missile-firing abilities to eventually take out the intake – perhaps an odd use of its abilities as an attack vehicle rather than a rescue mech! As International Rescue’s solitary rescue submarine, Thunderbird 4 easily commands the screen whenever an ocean-based rescue materialises, and The Mighty Atom offers us a surprisingly complex debut for such a small craft!

Thunderbird 5

Thunderbird 5 listens in on the unfolding Fireflash disaster.

Remaining high above the Earth, Thunderbird 5 is the first ever International Rescue craft we see during the events of Trapped in the Sky. The satellite may not become as crucially involved in the episode’s rescue operation itself as Thunderbirds 1 and 2, but in keeping with Trapped in the Sky‘s status quo-setting agenda, Thunderbird 5 becomes London Airport’s miracle in its hour of need. Manned by Jon Tracy, Thunderbird 5 is placed in orbit around the globe and possesses the impressive ability to receive any form of radio transmission on any given frequency.

As such, it’s no trouble for Thunderbird 5 to intercept radio transmissions between London Airport and the Fireflash as the deadly situation that the atomic airliner finds itself in escalates. Eventually, John makes the momentous decision to alert Jeff Tracy on Tracy Island as to the disaster unfolding in real-time, which Jeff then decides to act upon. Thanks to Thunderbird 5’s interception of London Airport’s worrying messages of growing atomic terror for the Fireflash, International Rescue blasts off into action for its very first mission. Thunderbird 5 may be the least mobile or feature-filled of the International Rescue craft, but it clearly proves its usefulness in Trapped in the Sky, serving as the crucial link between the danger zone and the rescuers.

It’s intriguing to realise that it takes a full six episodes for all of the main five Thunderbird machines to rocket into adventure. Viewing the crafts’ introductions through this lens, we can appreciate how Thunderbirds paints an ambitious sense of scale in showcasing what each Thunderbird machine is capable of in each of their debut adventures. From terror-stricken airliners to near-fatal collisions with the sun, an unpredictable plethora of scenarios are produced for each Thunderbird machine to make its memorable debut!

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Written by
Fred McNamara

Atomic-powered writer/editor. Website editor at Official Gerry Anderson. Author of Flaming Thunderbolts: The Definitive Story of Terrahawks. Also runs Gerry Anderson comic book blog Sequential 21.

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