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Reflections of a Fighter Pilot

Posted by aaron on May 20, 2008

The following comments are thoughts that Joe Lee Burns put together for a guy researching a book about fighter pilots.  Quite profound observations.  Since it was in a quick e-mail format, we polished it up in a couple spots but the reflections are all Joe Lee's.

[Here is the] answer about my career.  At a couple of places, I had to make a choice about advancement in rank potential versus flying fighters. I fought an exchange assignment to bombers; I fought going from the Pentagon to a USAFE staff job at 2 ATAF.  I loved flying like a mistress. Flying was first priority in my life after family, just below my love for America.  I wasn't ever the "best fighter pilot" in the world, but I was somewhere in the top ten for a while.  What I really wanted to be was the best WINGMAN in the AF.  I got to be pretty good.  I wanted to be trusted, to be counted upon by my fellow pilots in the air.

I mentioned camaraderie. I cannot overstate the bond (facing danger, sharing views of mother earth from above, and sharing the excitement of challenge and success in the air) that is formed between fellow pilots who fly together regularly in training. Multiply by ten when you fly together in combat. And, no, it is seldom verbalized at the time.  But you can see it in each other’s eyes every time you meet thereafter.

A big part of the enjoyment is being on a team that practices hard and plays hard.  You've read management theory books about job satisfaction and organizational excellence. The function of a fighter squadron is the epitome' of a successful 'company model. Somewhere between twenty-five and fifty members; interaction every day; short/medium/long term goals (two or three air-to-air or air-to-ground flights a week); taking the tests and then the "evaluation" flight for combat readiness as a pilot or two-man crew; preparing for a deployment somewhere or an Operational Readiness Inspection.  Plan, practice, self-evaluate, external evaluations.  Every flight has a plan (briefing), an execution (airborne maneuvers) and an assessment (the debriefing, a self-realization/actualization of how well you performed with specific areas to work on for improvement).  It has all the classic ingredients (including language use exclusive to that group) of the management model organization.

I can "rank" my assessment of each of the fighter squadrons I belonged to, all of them the very best.
The 35th (combat) was third, I'd say.  Good Commander (Lyle Beckers) and Ops Officer (LtCol Mickleson) and four strong flight commanders and ten or twelve Captains who were on their second combat tour.  We were strong in talent (five Fighter Weapons School graduates) and experience in the F-4.

UK FGR2 (F-4M)
Photo by Robbie Shaw

Next was the 64th Aggressors. Three great Commanders (Boots Boothby, Ted Laudise, Jerry Nabors) and Dawson "Randy" O'Neill as Operations Officer.  Hand picked pilots. Talent and enthusiasm. Our mission was truly unique and we were the only air-to-air combat training squadron (single role) in the Air Force. We would get talking about something that would improve our training and ergo the training we provided the combat crews. By the end of the week the idea would be implemented.  We were TDY together for one or two weeks every three months or more often.  While TDY we provided our own entertainment: composed fighter songs (Kobe), went deep-sea fishing, played poker, softball, touch football. And most of all we used peer pressure in the group to keep our standards extremely high (heart of the envelope shots; no caustic comments about a trainee's mistakes in the air - be humble).  We were protecting the unique mission of the Aggressors. 

USA F-5E Tiger II

Photo by Mike Freer

Top Squadron for me was the 44th Vampires, F-15s at Kadena.  I was Wing Weapons and Tactics Officer, then Ops Officer of the Bats, then their commander.  I wish I could take more credit for the successes of the 44th. Fact is, I can't.  Best I did was providing an environment for the flight commanders and captains to do what needed to be done and then turn them loose.  The 44th was selected to launch jets to Misawa to hold off the Russian fighters as we searched for the survivors/data box of KAL 007.  And later to escort the Korean President back to Seoul from Burma after the assassination attempt. The most talented, enthusiastic, and fun bunch of guys I've ever had the pleasure of serving with.

USA F-15C Eagle
Photo by Dennis Chang

So bottom line is I would not change a thing in my Air Force career -- unless I could stay, oh, 30 years old forever. I loved it.  I'm proud of it.  I have stood among truly great men and tried to be a good wingman.


Posted by JoeLeeBurns on
Good job on the clean-up/edit, professors!!!
Give yourselves an A minus.

Joe Lee aka Hawkeye
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