The following is a minimally edited transcript of a Friday telephone interview the Deseret News conducted with Lt. Col. Mike "Brillo" Brill, who is deployed at Balad Air Base in Iraq, hours after a flying mission that pushed him past the 6,000-hour mark in the cockpit of an F-16.
DN: What was the nature of the flying mission today where you crossed the 6,000-hour mark?
Brill: Actually it was a fairly routine sortie, which is the way most of them have been going recently. With the surge operation that started, there was a lot of drama, I guess I could use the best word, in the fall with the guys having to respond to troops in contact situations and deliver ordinance. But it has actually slowed down significantly since the, about, Christmas time frame. Most of what we have done in the past two months is just, in the simplest term, just make noise, just keep the bad guys hunkered down in their holes right now, where we've got them now, and keep them there.
Today's sortie, there were two different operations, which is the way most of the missions are tasked: You're airborne typically between three and a half to four and a half hours. Today's was actually a tad shorter than that. But usually you head out to one of the areas around Baghdad or up to Mosul or down around Basra. You work there for an hour, hour and a half and then go to a tanker.
Then you'll move on to a separate operation away from that. For today we were first on a mission that was what they call "armed overwatch," which is again, we're just overhead. The operation that's going on, to be there in case they start taking fire and then to put the bad guys down.
And the second portion of the flight was tactical reconnaissance, where we were working on one of the main roadways that runs between Mosul and Baghdad, looking at specific structure, about five miles in length and looking for any vehicles that had stopped or any spots on the ground where it looks like there might be disturbed earth. We're basically using our sensors with the infra red to find any indication there may be some buried explosives or improvised explosive devices.
DN: So you're flying to make noise, literally?
Brill: Absolutely. 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. It's been very effective for the last couple of months. When it hasn't worked the results have been predictable. We've been hit pretty hard.
DN: What has driven you to stay on top of the flying-hours record for so many years?
Brill: The thing that's kept me going, and I've used this term before and I've used it fairly regularly, is just the passion for the flying side of it. Flying is to me, it's that challenge of trying every day, trying to approach perfection. 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; and just part of that was, it's not like I've been doing the same thing for 6,000 hours. The flying we're doing today is radically different from what it was four years ago. We've got brand new ordnance, different technology in the plane, which all lends itself to different missions and different ways to do that mission. So it's a constant challenge to keep up with the technology as it evolves so rapidly that coupled with my passion for the flying. I guess the job we do here is called a "beautiful contrast." You've got that incredible force, the might and power of the F-16, but to really do it correctly it's an art of agility and finesse.
We execute as a team and yet it's our individual performance that makes or breaks you. It's a contrasting and very radically different things that all blend together that energizes me. That's why I keep doing it. It's all I've ever wanted to do and it continues to be so.
We're all cut from different cloth. There's other people with different ambitions. There might be one making more money or flying airlines and being able to see the world and travel around and do that, or something where it's more a 9-to-5 job and they spend the evenings with their families. Everybody's different, and probably I'm, jokingly, I say I'm pretty much a strange kind of guy. My wife will agree with that, anyway. But you know, for me, getting the 6,000 hours, even today, there's guys shaking my hand saying "I don't know how you could do it" or "I don't know how you have done it," but for me there isn't anything I'd rather have done.
DN: In a fighter, do you feel like you're part of the machine?
Brill: Yeah, probably that's a good way to put it. I've used the expression before: "It's kind of like a roller coaster you can steer." I feel like the airplane is an extension of my body, and if I'm flying and I'm not flying in formation, I'll roll upside down just for the fun of it. Or I'll do a slow roll, or if I gotta turn and go back the direction I started from, instead of doing a right-hand turn or a left-hand turn I'll go inverted and do a half loop. To me that's the fun part of it. That's the fun stuff that keeps me charged up about it.
DN: You have an extended relationship with the air wing commander at Balad Air Base, Brig. Gen. Burt Field.
Brill: Burt, I mean General Field, is a classmate of mine from the academy. We were both selected for F-16s at the same time. We began F-16 training at Hill Air Force Base in October of 1980. At that time there really was only one other operational base lieutenants could go, and that's Nellis (Air Force Base in Las Vegas). We were assigned there. We were squadron mates for three-years-plus down there, and then we both went to weapons school, which was back at Nellis, and then after that our careers diverged.
But today's sortie was special. 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 would have 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 for probably an hour before he went back to work. So it was a pleasurable way to do a sortie.
DN: With numerous combat deployments and the record number of hours in the F-16, have there been any heart-stopping experiences in your career?
Brill: Interestingly enough that's a subject that came up earlier today as we were talking about ejections. Somebody said, "Have you ever ejected?" But it's a credit to the airplane and the guys who maintain the airplane. In my 6,000 hours I've never even had a minor emergency that caused me any skipped heartbeats. That's not to say I've never declared an emergency. When you hit certain malfunctions you have to say "I'm declaring an emergency." That could be one of the four flight control systems has a fault or you hit a bird and you don't know what happened. So you have to declare an emergency. So I've had those sorts of instances but nothing where I've even thought about that I might have to eject or might not make it back to the base. I've never had to take an approach in arrestment. I've never even blown a tire on landing. I've had, for the good news, 6,000 pretty uneventful hours. That goes into the credit again of a great airplane and great guys maintaining it. Those guys that work on the line, they work out there in the harsh conditions and they do a fabulous job. The other part of it, 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.
DN: What if you woke up tomorrow and the airplane you climbed into was the F-16 you first flew in 1980. What would that do to you?
Brill: Because we weren't smart enough to know what we had back then, the first sortie was pretty much "push the throttle and make it go up and make it go down." The airplane is very similar in that regard. I remember taking off out of Hill on the first sortie and getting out to the (Great Sal Lake) where we were cleared to climb and pushing the throttle up and it was pretty much like the space shuttle taking off. I couldn't believe the amount of thrust and how quick the airplane responded. That part of the airplane is really unchanged.
Now, when you start talking about how we train and what you do when you fly it, we're light years away. In the '80s we were flying low altitude and we were using general-purpose bombs and we had AIM-9 (Sidewinder heat-seeking air-to-air) missiles that you basically had to get behind a guy to use, get behind the bad guy. Now we have radar missiles that you can fight or have our training scenarios and fly for 45 minutes and never even see a bad guy because you don't get close to them. The ordnance we're dropping we drop miles away. We fly at 20,000 feet, so the mission that I flew back in the 1980s, if I was asked to do that right now, I would have to go, "Wow, I'm going to have to go up and get some practice," because the skills and the technique I had then have been overcome by all of the technology.
On the flip side, I look at all of what we did as a lieutenant and remember what we called a "three-alarm helmet fire." That's one of our local pilot terms, which means you're scraping bottom trying to figure out what happened and how to undo what just went on. It's a lot not quite panic but it definitely gets your attention.
Now, all of those lieutenants, I don't know how they do it. They come out of the training units and they've got all this technology thrown at them and they have to digest 100 times more information than I had to when I was a lieutenant. So it's a huge change over the years in how we fly, what we have available, and even the nature of the pilots and how they're trained.
DN: How does the job you do blend with family life?
Brill: Obviously they've been very supportive. I've been deployed numerous times. Fortunately one of the benefits of the reserves is you don't go for nearly the duration they do. They (active-duty pilots) come over for four to six months and we come over for two months, but we come over more often. So that's a strain on them. They've got to pick up all those things I do as the guy, like mowing the yard and feeding the horses, putting the fire in the fireplace, so it's definitely harder for them. My wife works so it makes her work obviously a lot more stressful when I'm gone, so it's a strain on them. But all of them know and clearly understand the passion I have for flying and would never say anything or do anything to try to get me to stop doing it for themselves because they know how much it means to me.
DN: What impact has your career had on your own children?
Brill: They're all college-age right now. None of them have thought about being career military. I guess when you're married to someone in the Air Force or in the military, or if you're in that environment as long as they are, it turns you away from it because of the discipline. The getting up and coming home late, it's not the life for everybody. They've all decided to not go the way I went, which is fine. Even when you set your goals on it I tell people, kids, all the time, when they ask about flying, unfortunately there's never any guarantee because it's so hard to get into flying with any airplane, much less into fighters.
There's probably one percent of the people who start out thinking they're going to try and do that that end up in fighters. So it's a dream that has to be very strong to drive you, and you have to be ready to look for a different course at any point in time. If your eyes go bad as a senior in college it can knock you out of the training pipeline, or you can get into pilot training and find out you get airsick or you're just not comfortable with it, so its a tough choice when you say "I want to be a fighter pilot" and be ready, not for failure, but for it not to be a success.
DN: If being a fighter pilot hadn't worked out, would you have continued with flying in some other capacity?
Brill: I've often thought I would like helicopters. I don't know why it's such a radical difference from what I do. But I guess maybe just because it's so down close to the earth, and again it's a skill that requires you to be an aviator it's a term we used to use quite a bit. There's pilots and there's aviators. An aviator is that old stereotypical, or archetypal "hands of gold" kind of mentality. So if I couldn't have flown fighters I think I would have tried to fly helicopters. I'm not sure I would. I'm not patient enough sitting in a big airplane. I get bored driving back and forth between Salt Lake (and Hill). That 15 minutes to me seems like hours sometimes. I get too stir crazy to even sit still that long, so heavies wouldn't have been an option.
DN: Is there a hands-down best assignment for a fighter pilot?
Brill: I think most of the pilots would tell you the best place to go is at Nellis (Air Force Base). They call it the home of the fighter pilot. They have several organizations down there. They have the aggressors, which are the guys who mimic bad guys, and they do all of the air-to-air, which is, besides a lot of fun, it's a real challenge. They have the test wing, the 422nd. They're the ones in charge of developing and redesigning our tactics. And they've got the weapons school. Between those three, you're on the leading edge of the sword when you do that. So if there's a best assignment, it's Nellis, in any one of those organizations.
DN: What's your reaction to what the world sees of the operations in Iraq?
Brill: I'd say two things. First, not necessarily to slam the media, but they tend to report on burning houses instead of houses that aren't burning. Its very clear to me from my previous trips and even just from the short time I've been over here that we're making a lot of progress. I talk to the guys in the chow hall that are out in the field and they've got success stories every day.
It's my opinion, but we're not losing this war. We're not holding even. ... We're definitely making progress. I think Americans as a whole need to see rapid progress and they want to see Super Bowl this year not next year, so how that pans out I can't tell you, but we're definitely doing good things over here.
The second one would be, you know we're always, I get the limelight, (people) pat on the back and say "thanks for what you're doing." But find one of those guys that are wearing the green (Army, Marine) uniform and pat them on the back. They're out there working in the hundred-degree heat and full body armor in harm's way every day. And they're out there going door-to-door spreading the goodwill and doing the dirty work when they need to. My life over here is actually fairly comfortable.
We stay on the base and we've got good food and air-conditioned trailers, and I feel guilty when they thank me knowing what those guys are going through. So I tell people "Find one of those guys and give them a healthy handshake because they're paying a much dearer price than I am."