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The working title of this film was A Tommy in the U.S.A. The picture's opening title card reads: "Twentieth Century-Fox presents Thunder Birds [Soldiers of the Air]." Thunderbird Field, an air school in Arizona, was one of three Arizona-based training ground for many pilots from the United States, Great Britain, China and other countries belonging to the Allied Nations. The field was owned by agent, theatrical producer and amateur pilot Leland Hayward, according to a May 4, 1942 Life article, although a studio press release asserted that Joan Fontaine and her husband, Brian Aherne, were also co-owners of the property, which began as a school for civilian air pilots. According to Hollywood Reporter news items and information in the Twentieth Century-Fox Records of the Legal Department, located at the UCLA Arts-Special Collections Library, the picture was shot on location in Arizona at Thunderbird Field and Falcon Field, both near Phoenix, and at a ranch near Mesa. The files also note that in exchange for being permitted to film at the two air fields, the studio was required to build a swimming pool at each facility.
According to a December 24, 1941 Hollywood Reporter news item, the studio purchased a magazine story entitled "Spitfire Squadron," written by Arch Whitehouse, with the intention of incorporating "some of the information and dialogue for use in the temporarily titled A Tommy in the USA." According to the legal files, Whitehouse's material was not used and was purchased only as protection because of its similarity to a first draft completed by contributing writer Laurence Stallings. A November 1941 Hollywood Reporter news item announced that executive producer Darryl F. Zanuck had purchased a story called "Thunderbirds" by Carl Krueger, but it is unlikely that the story, which was about "the first group of U.S. Army pilots on the Atlantic ferry shuttle," was used for the final picture. The legal records, as well as the Twentieth Century-Fox Produced Scripts Collection, indicate that Frank S. Nugent worked on a story outline for the picture, but the extent of his contribution to the released film has not been determined.
A July 1941 Hollywood Reporter news item stated that Len Hammond had been assigned as the picture's associate producer, and that it was a "follow-up" to the studio's recently completed A Yank in the R.A.F. (see below). In October 1941, Hollywood Reporter noted that Bruce Humberstone had been assigned to direct the film. December 1941 Hollywood Reporter news items stated that Archie Mayo was due to direct the picture, and speculated that the picture's theme and title would be changed due to the U.S.'s entry into active fighting in the war. According to a February 1942 Hollywood Reporter news item, Dana Andrews was originally signed for the "romantic lead opposite Gene Tierney," and a February 1942 studio press release announced that James Gleason had been signed for a supporting role. A March 1942 Hollywood Reporter news item includes the following actresses in the cast, although their appearance in the completed picture has not been confirmed: Dorothy Dearing, Vivian Mason, Mary Scott, Claire James and Elaine Fenwick. Although Iris Adrian is credited in the role of "Saleswoman" by the Variety review, her scenes were reshot with actress Joyce Compton. Thunder Birds marked the producing debut of screenwriter Lamar Trotti.