A passion for flying is behind the latest in a string of world records set by Lt. Col. Mike Brill, who crossed the 6,000-hour mark piloting an F-16 Friday while on a combat mission in Iraq.
The Air Force Reserve pilot assigned to the 419th Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base was among the first pilots assigned to the F-16 when the fighter was new. He has stayed continuously ahead of his class by being the first to reach a steady string of flying-hour landmarks. Currently, only 21 pilots among the 24 nations whose air forces fly the F-16 have reached the 4,000 mark and only one other has logged more than 5,000 hours.
In a telephone interview from Balad Air Base near Baghdad, Brill, known by his peers as "Brillo," called his latest record-breaking flight both routine and exceptional.
"Most of what we have done in the past two months is, in the simplest term, just make noise, just keep the bad guys hunkered down in their holes right now, where we've got them and keep them there," he said. "We're up about 10,000 feet above the ground. At that range the F-16 is about impossible to see but you can very clearly hear it. Its a comfort blanket on the ground to hear that noise; but also for the bad guys on the ground, if they hear it, if they do anything like shoot a rocket or a mortar or small arms, we can get our sensors on that position in a matter of minutes and put a 500-pound bomb right on top of them."
Brill was expected to reach his latest landmark last Tuesday but dust storms in Iraq kept U.S. aircraft grounded earlier in the week. The "bad guys" have exploited the dust storms, and the absence of the overhead roar of the jets lets them know when they're not being watched, Brill said. "When it hasn't worked, the results have been pretty predictable. We've been hit pretty hard."
The remarkable part of Brill's Friday flight, or sortie, is his choice of wing man, Brig. Gen. Burt Field, Brill's classmate at the Air Force Academy and current combat commander.
"General Field asked me several weeks ago if I would let him be my wing man. I'm not used to telling generals 'no' but I could if I had wanted someone else. But I couldn't think of anyone I'd rather do it with; and it was fun because as we got back, even as busy as his schedule is, we sat in the (recreation) room of the squadron, and they had a cake for me, and we sat there with the young captains and lieutenants and reminisced about the good ol' days back at Nellis (AFB in Las Vegas) for probably an hour before he went back to work. So it was a pleasurable way to do a sortie."
"Brillo and I go back a long way," Field said in a statement sent from Iraq. "The sustained effort required to spend 6,000 hours flying the F-16 is phenomenal. That is 250 days in a small cockpit. And Brillo has been leading the world in this area for a long time."
Col. Gary Batinich, commander of the 419th Fighter Wing at Hill, flew with Brill in the first U.S.-led assault in Afghanistan shortly after 9/11. "While serving in the 419th Fighter Wing over the past 19 years, he's held a variety of key positions and has always managed to balance the demands of his day-to-day duties with the demands of a rigorous flying schedule," Batinich said.
Brill said the F-16 flies the same as it did in 1980, but the way pilots train and the increased weaponry and technology developed in the years since would have given him a "three-alarm helmet fire" if it had hit him all at once as a new pilot.
Those changes over time have required him to keep learning and adapting. "I don't think there's any such thing as a perfect sortie because there are so many tasks involved. But no matter how well you do today, I'm going to try it tomorrow and get better at it," Brill said.
A safe flying record has also helped boost his time in the cockpit. "I've never even blown a tire on landing. I've had, for the good news, 6,000 pretty uneventful hours."
A lot of bonding has taken place in that flying time. "There's just something about me and the airplane. It's almost like when you have a horse and a rider and you stop being two separate bodies and become a single entity. Sometimes I get a sixth sense the airplane would never do anything to hurt me."
Successfully dodging a number of unforeseeable obstacles, such as adverse changes in eyesight or physical ailments, has also kept Brill in the cockpit for so many hours.