Air Force Capt. Dale Cooke, one of the two surviving Thunderbird stunt pilots, said the deaths of four of his comrades in a training accident Monday should not be the death of the Thunderbirds.
"We have 8 million spectators," Cooke said. "The show renews a patriotic feeling. It is extremely important to our country."
But as Cooke stood in front of a red, white and blue Thunderbird hangar beside a model of the T38 jet fighter-trainer that carried his friends to death, he did not try to hide the shock and the disbelief.
Monday at 8 a.m., there were six Thunderbirds. Monday at 10 a.m., there were two, plus four widows and six fatherless children.
"We're a proud unit," Cooke said. "This is a devastating blow. The primary concern is for our families."
Cooke and other official Air Force spokesmen said they had no idea how or why the accident happened. A board of inquiry started its investigation today.
The crash site is just north of the only runway at Indian Springs Air Force Base, an auxiliary field 40 miles north of Las Vegas.
From an Air Force helicopter, the site looks at first like four burned matches laid out parallel on the desert floor. As you get closer, you can see four furrows where the four Northrop T38 jets plowed into the ground, leaving a mile-long trail of airplane parts and burnt sage and mesquite.
The accident was the worst disaster in the 29-year history of the Thunderbirds, who are supposed to be a recruiting poster for the Air Force: the fighter pilot, the best, the one who flies the most exciting, the most dangerous and the most unforgiving airplanes.
"The Thunderbirds look for pilots who look well, talk well, and who can mingle and mix well," said Lt. Col. Mike Wallace, spokesman for Nellis Air Force Base. Many more apply than are accepted.
Is it worthwhile to risk your lives like this? Cooke was asked.
"We don't view it as risking our lives," he said. "Accidents can happen everywhere . . . . I've done that maneuver maybe 300 times. I fail to see any one facet of it that would be dangerous."
The thing that is hard about stunt flying, he said, is making it look good. "It's harder from the point of view of aesthetics," he said, "not risk."
The maneuver the four pilots were flying at the time of the accident is called a "line abreast loop" and is not considered one of the more difficult stunts. The four planes fly wingtip to wingtip, just a few feet apart, at 400 miles per hour about 100 feet above the ground. Then they climb up and loop back inside and should return to a wings-level position at the same altitude they were when they started.
But on Monday, they looped back over and into the ground. It is possible, some witnesses said, that there was a collision, but Air Force officials say they just don't know.
Cooke discounted suggestions that the pilots could have followed the leader into the ground. "Normally you wouldn't find yourself in that position," he said. "You monitor the leader," he said, but the pilots also have cockpit instruments, peripheral vision and constant radio communication with the other Thunderbirds.
The line abreast loop was the fifth stunt the Thunderbirds practiced Monday. They had already worked on two diamond maneuvers, including a roll.
The pilots killed were a Thunderbird commander/leader, Maj. Norman L. Lowry III, 37; and Capts. Joseph Peterson, 32, Willie Mays, 32, and Mark E. Melancon, 31.
Nellis is the self-proclaimed "home of the fighter pilots" and the source of substantial local pride in the Las Vegas area. In that light, it was interesting that the Valley Times, a North Las Vegas newspaper, said in an editorial: "The Thunderbirds are not essential. They are, in our view, a costly indulgence for the Air Force."
The Thunderbirds cost the Air Force $6.4 million a year, including salaries for 69 enlisted men and 11 officers, including the six performing pilots. The future is uncertain.
"That question will have to be answered in Washington," two Air Force officers said in unison when it was asked whether the Thunderbirds will be continued.
This year's show schedule, which was to begin in March, is clearly imperiled. "I haven't addressed disbandment," Cooke said. "It's way too early."
Why does he do this for a living?
"It's obvious why people want to do this," Cooke said. "It's an experience you probably only get once in a lifetime."