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Former Thunderbird pilot reunites with T-38 at Tyndall AFB

Retired Lt. Col. Dale Cooke, former United States Air Force Thunderbird pilot, climbs a ladder to view the cockpit of Aircraft 177 at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., Sept. 7, 2016. Cooke flew Aircraft 177 from 1979-1982 when it was a Thunderbird jet and performed in over 200 events annually. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Javier Cruz/Released)

Retired Lt. Col. Dale Cooke, a former Air Force Thunderbird pilot, climbs a ladder to view the cockpit of his former T-38 Talon at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., Sept. 7, 2016. Cooke flew the T-38 from 1979-1982 when it was a Thunderbird jet and performed in over 200 events annually. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Javier Cruz)

Then-Capt. Dale Cooke, a pilot with the United States Air Force Thunderbirds, poses for an official biography photo in 1982. (Courtesy photo)

Then-Capt. Dale Cooke, a pilot with the Air Force Thunderbirds, poses for an official biography photo in 1982. (Courtesy photo)

TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. (AFNS) -- (This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series. These stories focus on individual Airmen, highlighting their Air Force story.)

Standing in the shadow of America’s premier fifth-generation fighter aircraft would make any other aircraft pale in comparison, but one T-38 Talon at Tyndall Air Force Base hides a historical legacy.

Retired Lt. Col. Dale Cooke, a former Air Force Thunderbird pilot, traveled to Tyndall AFB to reunite with the aircraft that served with him as a Thunderbird.

“The last time I saw this plane was 34 years ago when I flew it near Nellis AFB, (Nevada), in 1982,” Cooke said.

Cooke flew in the slot position between two wingmen and directly behind the leader during his assignment with the Thunderbirds and accumulated over 800 flight hours while traveling the country, logging more than 200 performances during the regular show season from 1979-1982.

“It was one of the best times of my life,” Cooke said. “The pure joy of flying and being around other people who were striving for excellence, it was wonderful and I have lifelong friends from that experience.”

No longer painted in its Thunderbird legacy colors of red, white and blue, aircraft No. 177 fulfills a different role within the 2nd Fighter Training Squadron as a world-class, air-to-air aggressor for F-22 Raptor student pilots. Repainted a glossy black, the T-38 remains a versatile training tool for today’s fifth-generation fighter aircraft.

From 1974-1982, the Thunderbird T-38s soared over millions of spectators nationwide and inspired generations of future pilots and service members.

“It flies against the Raptor every day, that’s a testament to the aircraft. It’s a strong little plane,” Cooke said.

Other than the new paint job, No. 177 is the only remaining unmodified T-38A model still in its original Thunderbirds configuration.

The 2nd FTS maintains the legacy of the aircraft as an original Thunderbirds decal is proudly displayed near the student pilot seat.

“They’re keeping the history; they know what they’ve got,” Cooke said. “Seeing that plane today in the great condition that it is in makes me very happy. Many times I’ve met people who told me they wanted to be in the Air Force because they saw the Thunderbirds fly.”

In 1982, the Thunderbirds switched from the T-38 to the F-16 Fighting Falcon, which has carried the legacy torch into today’s modern air shows and appearances across the country.

The Thunderbirds are known for their precision aerial performances at air shows and national events. The attention to detail in their performances expands into the ground crew who also perform a synchronized routine before take-off and again during landing.

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