HILL AIR FORCE BASE — Becoming a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot is the stuff dreams are made of. Flying daring combat missions against hostile enemy war planes using skill, courage and determination in service of your country — following in the contrails of legendary war heroes like James Jabara (WWII), Charles DeBellevue (Vietnam) and Cesar "Rico" Rodriguez (Gulf War).
Those who attain the designation are among the most elite flyers in the United States military. And while their primary duty is to protect the nation's interests when called upon during enemy combat, those pilots also serve in important capacities when they are not in their flight suits as well.
Birth of dream
Growing up in the west Texas college town of Waco, Lt. Col. Bart "Face" Wilbanks, 40, assistant director of operations for the 466th Fighter Squadron in the 419th Fighter Wing reserve unit at Hill Air Force Base, knew from an early age what he wanted to do.
Home-schooled through junior high school, the young Wilbanks would spend summers with his grandfather in Tuscon, Arizona, where he managed the city's international airport.
"I would go see (B-25 bomber) airplanes that he flew in World War II. That kind of started my interest," Wilbanks recalled. "He took me flying one day, and I decided that's what I was going to do. I was 7 years old."
After telling his mother of is lofty goal, she set out to help him achieve his dream.
"She had me write a letter to my congressman and (tell him) I wanted to be an Air Force pilot and ask 'How do you do this?'" he said. The representative sent a letter back explaining what was required in academics, service (Boy Scouts) and other areas of focus, prompting Wilbanks to dutifully follow the instructions he was given.
"After that, I pretty much blew off English (classes) and all that other stuff because it wasn't in the letter," he noted with a smile. He started flying at 15 years old, mowing lawns to make enough money to pay for flight training.
"I remember putting down $1,500 cash to start flying," Wilbanks said. "At that time it was about $30 an hour. I got my private pilot's license and went on from there."
As a young man, he decorated his room with images of fighter jets and marveled at the exploits of Tom Cruise's character "Maverick" in the iconic 1980s film "Top Gun."
"At the time it seemed pretty cool," he said. "Being in control of your own airplane (and) flying upside down seemed cool to me."
After high school, he attended Baylor University, where he enrolled in the Reserve Officer Training Corp and became active duty after graduation — serving 10 years, then becoming reservist in 2009. Today he is one of a select group of combat-ready aviators qualified to fly the new F-35 fighter jet — the most advanced war plane ever developed.
While Wilbanks is an expert combat fighter, little of his time is actually spent utilizing those skills. He is currently on active duty assignment at Hill for the next two years away from his full-time job as a Delta Airlines pilot. As an airman, he uses his experience and expertise to manage and develop flight plans for his unit. Doing so requires commitment and dedication nearly every day of the week, he said.
"We work long days — 10 to 12 hours," he said. He noted the sacrifice is worth it to ensure the squadron's fighter pilots are given the best training and planning possible to accomplish their mission and return safely from any combat situation.
"I'm constantly teaching (young guys) and passing along that knowledge," Wilbanks said. "It's a huge benefit for a reservist."
The young gun
Denver native Capt. Tyler "Iron" McBride, 29, assistant chief of weapons with the 34th Fighter Squadron of the active duty 388th Fighter Wing at Hill, will attest that the most difficult time of each day isn't flight training in his F-35 fighter jet. It's the preparation and other duties airmen are required to perform before and after training.
The Air Force Academy graduate is among the younger fighter pilots to qualify for the F-35 after flying the prior generation F-16 fighter for four years with deployments in Korea as well as a seven-month combat assignment Afghanistan. While in the Middle East, he was faced with his first real-life warfare experience — flying 85 combat missions.
"Our (mission) is to protect our way of life and take the fight to the enemy. If (the situation) gets to us, then it's a decision between life and death," McBride explained. "It's obviously mentally challenging, but rewarding at the same time because this is what we train for. When called upon, we execute (the mission)."
When McBride is not engaged in flying duties, he aids in the development of training plans for the members of his squadron so they can maintain the highest level of skill and preparedness possible in the event they are ordered to engage the enemy.
"We build certain scenarios for people to practice on the Utah Test and Evaluation Range (in the western desert)," he explained.
The planning is conducted in a secure room located in the newly constructed operations center on the base. A code is required to enter the room, with only a few people authorized to access it.
"I get to think about and help our chief of weapons develop mission planning and tactics — all the stuff that is fun and exciting about being a fighter pilot," McBride said.1 comment on this story
He noted that there is plenty of nonflight related work that goes into his military service. From logistics and planning to the final execution, nothing happens without first preparing heavily for combat success — which requires exponentially more hours of their daily time than being in the cockpit, he said.
"So when it comes time to be called, we're at the best we can be," McBride said. "That's what our job is outside of actually flying. It's required because this is life or death."