Jim Cole, 85, gives an "all set" thumbs up as he prepares for his session in the flight simulator at Columbus Air Force Base Wednesday. Cole is believed to be the first pilot to land a T-38 trainer jet at the base when he flew the plane into Columbus as part of an airshow in 1965. Photo by: Slim Smith/Dispatch Staff
January 19, 2019 10:00:06 PM
For 55 years now, the T-38 jet trainer has been a familiar sight in the skies over Columbus.
Used as the primary aircraft for training U.S. Air Force fighter and bomber pilots, there have been untold thousands of T-38 takeoffs and landings at Columbus Air Force Base, which currently has 91 of the T-38s at its disposal.
Of the hundreds of pilots who trained on the iconic aircraft, Columbus native Jim Cole may occupy a unique footnote in the history of the T-38, which is scheduled to be replaced by a newer training aircraft in 2020.
Although Air Force officials cannot confirm it, Cole is likely to have been the first pilot to ever land a T-38 at Columbus Air Force Base when he touched down there in July 1965.
"I'm pretty sure I was," Cole said Wednesday, as he returned to the base, where he was treated to a session in CAFB's simulator, the base's way of acknowledging Cole's service.
"I was stationed in Enid, Oklahoma, and there was a request for an airshow and fly-by down here (in Columbus)," said Cole, now 85. "We had the (T-38s) and they were new. We weren't even training in them because we had to have 75 hours in them before we could fly with students."
Cole, who spent virtually all of his military and civilian careers training pilots, was one of a small group of training pilots selected to break-in the new trainer.
"So we flew the air-show circuit," Cole said. "That's what we did for a while, trying to get those hours in."
One day, a call went out for volunteers to fly an airshow.
"I asked, 'Where is it?'" Cole recalled. "They said, 'Columbus, Mississippi.' I said, 'I'm your guy.'"
Cole was born and raised in Columbus, where graduated from Lee High School in 1951. From there, he went to The Citadel in South Carolina for two years before transferring to his beloved Ole Miss.
Upon graduation from Ole Miss, Cole went to pilot training in Marana, Arizona.
"I always wanted to be a pilot, probably since the first time I saw an airplane," he said.
After pilot training, Cole chose the one opening in Greenville, mainly because he could attend football games at Ole Miss, just up the road in Oxford.
From there, he was sent to Germany, an assignment he thought might prevent him for flying the Air Force's new trainer aircraft.
First introduced in 1959, more than 1,100 T-38s were delivered to the U.S. Air Force between 1961 and 1972, the year production of the aircraft ended.
"They were talking about getting the T-38s when I was in Greenville, but it never happened while I was there," Cole said. "But when I came back from Germany, they were just getting them at Vance Air Force Base. I ended up being one of the first ones to go to training on it."
Cole said the T-38 was definite improvement over its predecessor, the T-33.
"To me, it's the premiere trainer," said Cole, who trained pilots for the Air Force, the Indiana Air Guard (where he retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel) and American Airlines. "It could go as high as I ever wanted to go and as fast as I ever wanted to go. It's just a great airplane."
Back in Columbus
Wednesday, Cole slipped comfortably into seat of the simulator, maneuvering through a series of loops, rolls and Figure 8s with only minor prompting from the simulator instructor.
"It was a lot of fun,'" Cole said. "Very familiar."
He was accompanied by his brother, Tom, for whom CAFB also holds a special significance: It's where he met Jim for the first time.
"I was about 9 years old, as I recall," said Tom, who is 22 years younger that Jim. "He was already in the Air Force by the time I came along. I remember my parents talking on the phone to somebody in Germany. They said it was my brother. They'd put me on the phone and tell me to tell him 'Hi.' So that's what I did. But, for some reason, it didn't really connect in my mind. I had one brother, Marvin, who was 10 years older than me. He was the only brother I knew."
One day, Tom's parents told him they were going to the base to meet his brother. It was a moment that Tom would never forget.
As Tom hung on the short chain-link fence at the tarmac, he watched in awe as two F-84 fighter jets, painted in camouflage, bristling with machine guns and two big fuel tanks that Tom mistook for bombs -- landed and taxied to a stop before him.
"One canopy came up, then the other," Tom said.
Moments later, Tom stared up at one pilot, then the other.
"I'll never forget it," Jim said. "He looked at me and asked, 'Are you my brother?'"
"For me, it was like meeting a hero, almost," Tom said. "Seeing him climb out of that big, bad fighter jet, I was just so proud. I was in awe."
Despite their age difference, Tom and Jim have a close bond.
"We like the same things, including flying," said Tom, who has his commercial pilot's license and had built and flown two small experimental aircrafts. "Even though Marvin and I were closer in age, I had more in common with Jim. We both loved flying, but Marvin (now deceased) wasn't interested in it at all."
Jim now lives in Montgomery, Texas. Tom stayed in Columbus and owns Columbus Lock and Key.
After retiring from American Airlines and the Indiana Air Guard, Jim went to work for the Federal Aviation Authority, where he again worked with simulator training.
"I was supposed to do that for two years," he said. "Fourteen years later, my wife finally said, 'Are you ever going to retire?' So I did."
That was six years ago. When Jim was 79.
The T-38 will soon be retiring, too, which Jim views with mixed emotions.
"Well, I know that the airplane deserves it," he said. "But in terms of just the airplanes, I'm not sure it's a good deal. I know someone who's worked with the new trainer that Boeing is building and they're very happy with it. But, for me, I still like the T-38."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]
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