This is a series of articles which draw on my personal experiences, recollections, and reflections of a 7,000 hour flying career spanning 26 years as a pilot in the United States Air Force. My goal is to provide the reader a balanced and realistic appreciation of what it was like to "fly the line" for all but a few months of those 26 years, during peacetime training, and in war.

Figure 1 - Author in F-15A above snow covered Bitburg Air Base, Germany

It has been said that "fighter pilot" is an attitude, not an AFSC (Air Force Specialty Code). I couldn't agree more and will go one step further. It is my considered observation and opinion that not all of those who fly a fighter aircraft are fighter pilots, and indeed there are multitudes flying cargo, bomber, rotary-wing and utility aircraft, who are unconditionally qualified and deserving of the title. Indeed, the typical "fighter pilot" does not fit the widely-portrayed, stereotypical image. Although each has gone through rigorous screening and demanding training, intentionally designed to eliminate all but the "best of the best", those who eventually earn their wings come in all sizes, races, degrees of intelligence, bravery and patriotism.

Each of these stories is based on happenings and events of which I have direct knowledge. Many are written in the first person. In the vast majority of cases actual names, dates, and places have been used. However, in some instances the naming of individuals, living or dead, could be disparaging and possibly bring undeserved distress to their friends and families. To avert this eventuality I have intentionally made a limited number of alterations of names and dates. Despite this the stories themselves remain authentic, as they are firmly rooted in actual events. I realize many readers will be unfamiliar with the acronyms, jargon, and slang typically associated with the tactical fighter mission. Indeed, such examples of these are prolific within these stories. However, I feel it would dilute the content and distract from the tone and pace of the stories should I attempt to reword or directly explain all unique and unfamiliar terms "on the spot." Instead, I have, for the most part, chosen to include such expressions within a Glossary of Terms.

Since my retirement from the Air Force in 1984, I have been asked on numerous occasions, "Do you miss it?" My reply has consistently been, "Every day that I'm alive." Try as you may, it is not possible to explain to someone who has never been there what it is like to hold 50,000 pounds of thrust in your left hand, fly a tight formation with a trusted leader in weather so thick you can't see anything but the green navigation light on a right wing tip, mere feet from your eyes, then suddenly break into the incredibly bright sunlight of a pristine blue sky and in your peripheral vision watch the top of the dense cloud bank from which you have just emerged fade rapidly beneath you like a big, white, feather bed. One cannot begin to explain the self-satisfaction which accrues from the heartfelt thanks and embrace of a wingman whose life you have just saved, the élan of a truly, tight-knit, combat squadron, or the sheer thrill of successfully defying terrible odds.

I will always consider myself one of the luckiest men alive because God gave me the body, talent, and opportunity to experience incredible things for over a quarter century, which others have only dreamed about in their wildest fantasies. I hope the reader will enjoy these stories as much as I have in their recall.

Phil "Hands" Handley
Colonel, USAF (Ret.)