Growing up in today's Air Force

  • Published
  • By Col. Ken Stefanek
  • 39th Air Base Wing Vice Commander
Unlike most of you, the Air Force I grew up in was not at war. To the contrary, pilots with combat experienced were limited to "old heads" who flew in Vietnam. As such, youngsters like me relished every opportunity to listen to these older pilots share their war stories. A bunch of us gathered one day to listen to a pilot who proudly wore an F-105 100-mission patch every Friday afternoon. We hung on his every word as he described flying Route Pack Six missions into the heavily defended airspace around Hanoi (RP-6 contained the northernmost areas of Vietnam - the US lost hundreds of F-105s there).

The thing I remember most vividly is that while he seemed almost nonchalant while describing "Thud Ridge" and dodging surface-to-air missiles and AAA, he lit up when he described the crazy maneuvers pilots performed while returning to their bases after a successful mission, especially if it was a pilot's last mission before returning to the U.S.

It struck me as odd that for this pilot, getting shot at was no big deal while returning to base - a relatively routine task that even I had accomplished - was a very big deal.

He said pilots invented "arrival shows" as a way to show off after a successful mission and in one instance, an "arrival show" nearly ended in tragedy as two of his friends were lucky to avoid a high-speed midair collision.

As I reflect on this memory through the lens of living at Incirlik in FPCON Charlie, I can understand how something like this could happen. I'd bet that many of us don't think twice about the threat that drives us to FPCON Charlie, as after three plus years, it's "ops normal" for us. We forget that there is a real enemy out there that means to do us harm. Instead, we dream up new and often dangerous ways to show off and as a result actually increase our chances of getting seriously hurt. By focusing on the real threat instead of getting creative with the routine tasks of day-to-day life, we can make sure that we don't need to be lucky to survive until we return to the U.S.