Fighter Pilot Reaches 4000 hours

An Air Force article reports that LtCol Gary Middlebrooks has achieved 4,000 flight hours in the F-16 while deployed to Iraq.  Lockheed Martin, the contractor for the F-16, tracks such milestones and says that only 32 other pilots in the world have flown that many hours in the F-16.  ( also tracks Viper pilot hours.)

“Flight hours” are a fairly routine measure of a fighter pilot’s time in his aircraft.  While they do not directly correlate with maturity or experience, they do let everyone know how long a pilot has been associated with his airframe.  Part of the rarity of such a number of hours is due to the short sortie duration of most fighter flights, and also the fact that fighter pilots are generally required to complete multi-year non-flying assignments. 

Often, though not always, fighter pilots with such high hours are reservists or national guard members.  For example, Col Robert McCutchen, who is also mentioned in the article and has 4,900 hours in the F-16, has been a reserve F-16 training instructor for 10 years, providing him a unique opportunity to fly–continuously–far longer than most active duty fighter pilots.

Often, though not always, those pilots have also been on multiple combat deployments in those guard/reserve roles.  In general, active duty pilots may go on one or two deployments at one assignment; they then move to another assignment.  In today’s Air Force, it is unlikely that the second assignment will even be in the F-16, never mind an F-16 unit that deploys to combat.  Reserve and guard pilots, however, may deploy one or more times a year for years in a row.  The reason this distinction has an impact is that combat fighter missions are often significantly longer than training ones (often 4 to 8 hours or more, as opposed to 1 to 2 in training), meaning some pilots can log more flight time in combat in a month than they normally do in a year in training.

Regardless, 4,000 hours is an achievement, and it is one that few reach.  It’s also almost the equivalent of an entire year sitting in a very small, cramped cockpit.