Recent Graduate Ensures Seamless Operations for USAF Thunderbirds

Recent Graduate Ensures Seamless Operations for USAF Thunderbirds

While all OU Extended Campus students have to learn time management skills, United States Air Force Master Sgt. Jermaine Cooks had to take it to the next level.

Cooks, who graduated from OU Extended Campus in Fall 2018, completed his degree while serving as a production superintendent for the United States Air Force Thunderbirds air demonstration team, a three-year commitment that he’s served about half of.

Based at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas Valley, Nevada, the Thunderbirds present precision aerial maneuvers at air shows to exhibit the capabilities of modern, high-performance aircraft, as well as the high degree of professional skill required to operate the aircraft. 

A seamless show

Photo of Jermaine CooksAs a production superintendent, Cooks oversees all Thunderbird maintenance operations while training and managing other maintainers to ensure each F-16 Fighting Falcon is in working condition, all while improving production flow to ensure seamless air demonstration operations.

“Only a few people can do what I do,” Cooks said. “We keep the show running behind the scenes.”

With a job requiring him to be at 60 to 70 percent of the shows, Cooks faced the added responsibility of completing school work while spending 180 to 200 days per year traveling during the Thunderbirds’ show season, which typically runs March through November.

The Thunderbirds’ team is composed of eight pilots, four support officers, 120 enlisted Airmen and three civilians serving in 28 Air Force job specialties. This year, the team will perform at 65 air shows in 33 different locations all over the world, as well as flyovers at the Super Bowl on Feb. 3 in Atlanta, Georgia, and the Daytona 500 on Feb. 17 in Daytona Beach, Florida.

“I would say my time management had to improve to an exceptional level due to how much traveling that’s required throughout the show season,” Cooks said. “Juggling family, work and education, my success was immensely dependent on how effectively I manage my time. I learned quickly that waking up at 6 a.m. is sleeping in.”

Overcoming challenges

That, however, wasn’t the hardest thing Cooks faced while completing his degree.

“The biggest challenge I faced while attending OU Extended Campus was making the decision to remain in the program while coping with the tragic death of one of my youngest Airmen while deployed to an undisclosed location,” Cooks said. “Sitting bedside for three days while he was hospitalized until he succumbed to his fatal wounds, then consoling his parents, young wife and my fellow Airmen, was by far the most adverse circumstance I have endured while in school and throughout my military career.”

Cooks said it was the unwavering commitment to finish what he started, and the hope of becoming an example to his two teenage sons and fellow Airmen, that motivated him to keep pursuing his degree.

“Juggling family, work and education, my success was immensely dependent on how effectively I manage my time. I learned quickly that waking up at 6 a.m. is sleeping in.”

“My sons and wife have always fueled me,” Cooks said.

Cooks said he didn’t have a consistent, positive male role model growing up. He left college at age 19 to join the military. Just a year later, his first son was born. His second son came along four years after that, when Cooks was 24.

It was his wife who encouraged him to continue his education, and that push brought him one step closer to becoming a positive example for his sons.

“She’s an educator and has always pushed me to be the best version of myself through education,” Cooks said. “I believe in the importance of being a man my sons can emulate, by setting a goal and accomplishing that goal through dedication and hard work. Dedicating myself to being that role model for my children is an ongoing and continuous journey, a journey that starts with education.”

Always growing

Cooks, who describes himself as a dedicated father, husband and coach, said choosing to major in human relations came easy, because he’s always been fascinated with the psychology of organized teams. He said the degree, along with the opportunity to participate in an internship with his unit’s First Sergeant, has increased his aptitude in all three of those areas.

“I’m extremely grateful for the knowledge I’ve received, as it’s contributed to my overall self-improvement,” Cooks said. “OU’s Human Relations program facilitates a better understanding of the complexities of a productive team. I knew through studying those complexities it would force me to grow both personally and professionally.”

Cooks said he’s learned to embrace his failures more so than his successes, because his failures consistently keep him a place that’s uncomfortable, forcing him to keep growing into a better person, and his degree is already helping him in his career.

“I work for one of the most dynamic, high-profile teams in the Air Force,” he said. “So far, my learned knowledge in the elements of organization, harmony and cohesion have prepared me to better lead my maintainers in accomplishing the Thunderbird mission of recruiting, retaining and inspiring current and future Airmen.”

For more information on earning a degree from a distance, visit

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Tami Althoff

Tami Althoff holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism. She is a reporter with more than 20 years’ experience working for newspapers, including The Oklahoman. She has covered everything from breaking news to local music and art. She loves sports, especially OU football and basketball games, where she often embarrasses her children by yelling too loudly.