The next time you think about complaining after a long flight, consider Henry Rogers.
The Air Force colonel has spent more than 125 days — or 3,000 hours, depending on how you like to crunch your numbers — inside the cramped cockpit of an F-16 Fighting Falcon, a rare milestone that the Department of Defense says fewer than 300 pilots have ever reached.
But perhaps more astonishing is that one-third of Rogers’ time in an F-16 has been spent flying combat missions. In November, the pilot hit the 1,000 combat-hours mark while flying a sortie with Hill Air Force Base’s 421st Expeditionary Fighter Squadron in Afghanistan.
The 421st, a sub-unit of Hill’s 388th Fighter Wing known as the “Black Widows,” reported to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan on Oct. 28 to support Operation Freedom’s Sentinel and NATO’s Resolute Support mission. The missions serve as follow-up to the U.S.’s post 9/11 combat work in Afghanistan. U.S. forces are working security and counter-terrorism missions to build on the past 13 years of U.S. involvement in the country.
“When I was a lieutenant, the only guys with 3,000 hours were old guys that I honestly wondered how they could still meet the physical and mental demands of flying fighters,” Rogers said. “I guess I am one of those guys now, even though I don’t feel that old.”
Since graduating from pilot school more than 20 years ago, Rogers has known just one airplane: the Fighting Falcon. He’s served eight deployments while piloting the jet.
“I’ve always been assigned to F-16 combat squadrons for my flying assignments, so that means I’ve deployed a lot,” he said.
The veteran pilot said the plane has changed tremendously since he first started flying it, with technology upgrades like night vision goggles, GPS and advanced target and missile systems all changing the more than 40-year-old aircraft.
“Rather than producing a new airframe, the F-16 constantly upgrades its software, computing capacity, and weaponry,” Rogers said. “There is always a new tactic or weapon to learn. Fighter pilots prove their worth by how well they know their aircraft and tactics, their ability to complete the mission despite the obstacles and threats.”
The Black Widows will serve in Afghanistan for roughly the next six months. When the squadron returns to Hill, the completed deployment will represent the group’s 15th and final F-16 deployment to the Middle East area since 1990. The squadron will eventually transition to the F-35A Lightning II.