March 3, 2008:
The U.S. Air Force has only one active duty
pilot with a thousand combat flying hours, in an F-16. The pilot in question,
Lt. Col. Andy Uribe [PHOTO], flew 272 combat missions, over a 19 year career, to
accomplish that. Uribe is unusual in that he managed to spend 15 of those years
on flying status. He recently flew his 3,000th hour, overall, in an
F-16. Typically, air force and navy combat pilots spend about 200 hours in the air each year, but that nearly
doubles if they are sent to a combat zone. Andy Uribe has spent a lot of time
in combat zones.
Combat hours, however, are not what
they used to be. During World War II, the crews of heavy bombers operating over
Germany, had a higher casualty rate, at least in terms of combat deaths, than
did infantrymen. Fighter pilots were better off, but still suffered combat
losses an infantryman could commiserate with. World War I pilots losses were
even higher, but they were flying machines that had been invented less than a
decade earlier, and such losses were just accepted.
But the American combat aviation has
come a long way in the last sixty years. Fifty years ago, carrier landings were
so dangerous, that a carrier aviator who stayed on flight status for twenty
years, had a fifty percent chance of being killed or injured. Air force pilots
had a better deal, but weather and accidents still took a toll that made
peacetime flying in the 1950s, far more dangerous than combat flying does now.
U.S. warplanes have become safer (far
fewer equipment failures), more capable (all can operate in any kind of
weather), and more secure from enemy ground fire. That last achievement was
brought about by the proliferation of smart bombs, better electronic
countermeasures, and the lack of opponents with modern anti-aircraft missiles.
The only battle losses U.S. combat pilots have suffered in the last decade is
when they came in low to use their cannon. This is discouraged by commanders,
but the ground troops, and pilots, find this sort of thing is often very
effective. The pilots like to take some risks, as doing figure-eights at 20,000
feet, while dropping an occasional smart bomb, is not terribly stimulating, or
Pilots are also aware they may well be
part of the last generation of combat pilots. More UAVs are carrying weapons,
and using them. The future is upon us,
and it's not the same.