HILL AIR FORCE BASE — Col. David Smith knows a few things about flying.
During his Air Force career, he’s flown trainer aircraft, tankers, twin-engine prop planes made for surveillance and, of course, fighter jets. As a pilot for Jet Blue, he regularly flies commercial airliners.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in the air,” he says.
He’s also quite well-versed in combat deployments.
The command pilot has deployed three times to Iraq, part of Operations Northern and Southern Watch following the Gulf War, and part of the more recent Operation Enduring Iraqi Freedom. He’s also toured in Afghanistan and Kosovo and participated in Operation Noble Eagle, the United States homeland security operations that began a few days after the September 11 attacks.
Earlier this month, Smith took command of Hill Air Force Base’s 419th Fighter Wing. The colonel figures his experience in the air and in battle will serve him well in his new position.
The Airmen in Smith’s fighter wing are no exception. By January, approximately 20 percent of Smith’s 1,110-person wing will be deployed in Afghanistan, supporting Operation Freedom’s Sentinel — the followup to the U.S. post-9/11 combat mission in Afghanistan, known as Operation Enduring Freedom.
“That’s our job,“ Smith said, noting his wing has been and will continue to be involved in regular U.S. combat deployment rotations. “We’re here to provide combat power to combatant commanders. I lived through it myself and I know it’s high stress, so hopefully I can be sensitive to what our people need.”
The 47-year-old was commissioned into the Air Force in 1992 and joined the reserves in 2002. Right now, he’s on full-time orders, taking a military leave of absence from his pilot post at Jet Blue.
“It’s fairly common to go back and forth (between full-time and part-time duty),” he said.
Air Force Wing commanders like Smith generally serve in those positions for two to three years, so it will be a while before he takes the cockpit of a commercial jet.
Previously stationed at Homestead Air Reserve Base, just outside of Miami, Florida, Smith said his first couple of weeks at Hill have mostly consisted of “Hill Air Force Base immersion.”
“It’s a learning process right now,” he said. “I’m learning about a lot of things, but mostly I’m trying to learn about my folks here in the wing. My personal No. 1 goal is to take care of my people.”
Those people, Smith says, are becoming more and more important in a time of economic uncertainty across the military.
“Right now the (Department of Defense) budgets are constrained — everybody is working with less money,” he said. “And one of the largest costs is personnel costs. One of the things we offer in the reserve component is an alternative for our senior leaders to have a force that’s potentially cheaper.”
Smith said that, with the exception of a few full-timers, most reservists make most of their living by working in the private sector.
“When we’re called upon, that’s when we go full-time service,” Smith said. “That’s cheaper for the tax payer and right now, that’s important.”
With expensive upgrades like the F-35, the Long Range Strike Bomber and the KC-46 Pegasus refueling tanker either already online or coming in the near future, Smith said the status quo is changing.
“It’s a challenge right now for the DOD,” he said. “Those (aircraft) are Air Force priorities, so to fund those projects we have to try and keep personnel costs down.”