NELLIS AFB, NV — The popular television series The Six Million Dollar Man featured a fictional test pilot turned astronaut who flew to the Moon and served as a pilot with the Air Force Thunderbirds.
The Six Million Dollar Man was Col. Steve Austin, “the world’s first bionic man”. Based on an actual crash of a NASA M2-F2 Lifting Body, Col. Austin survived a fictional crash by being fitted with electronic legs, an arm, and an eye fused to his biology.
A few years later, Col. Austin went undercover with the Thunderbirds during the episode “The Thunderbird Connection”. The plot had the squadron of five T-38A Talon jets travel to a fictional Middle East country to save the life of a young prince.
Watch ‘The Thunderbird Connection’ Free on NBC
The episode first aired on November 28, 1976, and is now available on NBC-TV streaming for free. The nearly two-hour episode is divided into part one and part two. It is listed as 1976’s second-most-watched television show.
The episode features original Thunderbirds inflight views and cockpit video. Some of the video is grainy, but serves as historic footage from their flights. The story was also filmed in part on the flightline of Nellis AFB — the home of the Thunderbirds.
America’s Ambassadors in Blue had received the T-38A Talons two years earlier due to the oil crisis. It used far less oil than their McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom II. The aircraft is the only training jet flown by the squadron.
“In 1974, a spreading fuel crisis inspired a new aircraft for the team, the T-38A Talon,” Thunderbirds public affairs officer Capt. Remoshay Nelson explained. “Although the Talon did not fulfill the Thunderbirds tradition of flying front-line jet fighters, it did demonstrate the capabilities of a prominent Air Force aircraft.”
Maj. Chris G. Patterakis served as the actual Thunderbirds commander and flight leader during 1975 and 1976. In the Six Million Dollar Man episode, fictional Paul Miller is Thunderbird one.
Of the four other pilots, Steve Austin serves as Thunderbird 3. In 1976, the squadron’s first African-American pilot Capt. Lloyd W. “Fig” Newton served as the actual slot pilot. Newton is one of the five pilots featured, although he and two other real Thunderbirds are not credited.
The evening the TV show originally aired, the real Thunderbirds were spending the night at MacDill AFB near Tampa, Florida. Their planned flight demonstration earlier that day had been cancelled due to weather. They returned to Nellis AFB the next morning.
(Charles A Atkeison reports on aerospace and technology. Follow his updates via social media @Military_Flight.)