TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. — The last time they met he was a young man, focused and lean, part of a precision team. After three decades, they were once again reunited. Though he saw his former teammate as if it were yesterday, this time it was gloss black with livery of the 2nd Fighter Training Squadron.
Retired Lt. Col. Dale Cooke, a former Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron Thunderbirds pilot from 1979 to 1982, walked into the 2nd FTS to prepare for something that would go down in the history books.
He would fly with the original Slot Machine (now known as Aircraft No. 177), the last operational unmodified T-38A Talon Cooke flew with the Thunderbirds.
“Col. McCurdy (the 2nd FTS commander) contacted me and said there was some interest in getting me to fly,” Cooke said. “It was not even believable to me because the only place you can fly a fighter airplane is the military and when you step out of your plane for the last time you think, ‘I’ll never get to do this again.’”
The name Slot Machine originally came from the home of the Thunderbirds at Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas, Nevada; 35 years later the name is still used for the slot position on the team.
Surrounded by current Thunderbird pilots, Cooke once again resembled the focused and lean version of himself during his time with the Thunderbirds.
Cooke was joined by the current Thunderbirds in F-16 Fighting Falcons over the Gulf of Mexico.
“To get in Slot Machine one more time is an unbelievable experience,” he said. “It’s a dream you don’t ever expect to do again.”
Cooke and Slot Machine logged over 800 flight hours during their tenure with the Thunderbirds at over 200 performances nationwide.
The only remaining hint of aircraft No. 177’s legacy resides on the student pilot control panel. A modest red, white and blue Thunderbirds sticker is a reminder of the days this team inspired generations of Americans across the country.
Aircraft No. 177 went on to fulfill a vital role at the 2nd FTS as a venerable aggressor for new F-22 Raptor student pilots, consistently providing a highly maneuverable adversary paired with veteran fighter pilots.
These days Slot Machine inspires something new in student pilots – dread.
Gloss black with a golden tip, the motto “2nd To None,” reads clear as Slot Machine slips in and out of view through the clouds, which it will continue to do at Tyndall AFB until it too is retired and preserved for future generations to come.