The horror, the grisliest of times, was six years ago. It seemed then that the Thunderbirds were cursed, that maybe the government of the United States of America, linchpin of NATO, SEATO and the free world, should get out of the business of risking the lives of its pilots (and spending the $1 million it costs to train each of those sophisticated devices) simply to amuse spectators at air shows.
Nick Hauck was the first to go in this period, flying position Number Six, opposing solo, at Ogden, Utah, on Saturday, May 9, 1981. Captain Hauck was coming in on a high-low pass, slow and low, and evidently, when he realized he was too far ahead on the count and the lead solo would pass him way off show center, he tried to decelerate and went too far back and fell to earth in an awful burst of hellfire.
The next day was Mother's Day, and the day after that the Thunderbirds were to go to California to tape an appearance on Fantasy Island. D.L. Smith was the leader then, the Thunderbird commander, the Boss, flying Number One, diamond point, and most people thought the Thunderbirds would surely cancel their TV spot, but Colonel Smith decided they would keep the date and then attend the funeral. It was like a kid who had fallen off his bicycle. They had to get right back on.
Then, four months later, D.L. himself was killed. He was leaving for Texas after three shows in Cleveland. He was flying Number One this trip, as usual, and had his crew chief with him. As soon as they took off, the T-38 sucked sea gulls into both jets and, almost immediately, Colonel Smith knew the engines were kaput. "Bail out, bail out," he screamed, and the sergeant punched out, sending the canopy, then himself, clear. He hit the ground hard, but safely.
The Boss's chute malfunctioned. They always say that in the Thunderbirds, indeed, in all the services. Malfunctioned. What kind of a stupid word is that? It's almost as if they can't bring themselves to say it broke. Something went wrong. The son of a bitch didn't work right, and the Boss's body shattered on the rocks by Lake Erie.
Capt. Pete Peterson, Number Three, who flew right wing to D.L., said, "But for the grace of God, it could be any one of us, anytime, anywhere."
So the Thunderbirds went on. Maj. Norm Lowry had already been tagged to succeed Colonel Smith, and he came in early and assumed command. Capt. Willie Mays, who had been the narrator in '81, Number Eight, took his famous name and moved up to Two, left wing, across from Peterson. Hoss Jones, who has a famous brother, Bert Jones, the quarterback, was chosen to fly the other solo across from Dale Cooke. Mark Melancon was the other newcomer, and Lowry put him in the slot of the diamond, on the leader's tail. The Thunderbirds would go for a 30th year. "We have a mission," Captain Mays said.
Major Lowry was a godsend. He was instantly admired, for he had a special gentleness no one had ever seen in a Boss before. All through the fall and into the winter of '82, at their home at Nellis Air Force Base, outside Las Vegas, Lowry led the Thunderbirds through practice, readying them for their return to the show circuit in March.
On Saturday, Jan. 16, he brought his young son, Jason, out to the squadron headquarters. Jason was only 11 at the time, and he was worried for his dad. After all, his father's predecessor had been killed on the job, and they'd lost a solo just before that. In 28 years, 16 Thunderbirds had bought the farm. But Major Lowry took his boy around and reassured him that it wasn't all that risky.
Monday morning the solos, Cooke and Jones, went up first and practiced at the usual place, about 40 miles away, up over the auxiliary field at Indian Springs. They were on their way back to Nellis when they passed the diamond going out—Lowry in the lead, Peterson and Mays on the wings, Melancon in the slot. The solos and the diamond could see each other well, for it was a clear desert sky's day, and they exchanged greetings on their radios.