Warplanes: The One and Only

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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 dangerous.

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.

 


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