It’s a dark night over Baghdad. Storm clouds rumble with the sound of thunder. In poor weather, Air Force pilots move in to escort a navy strike package, dodging surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery fire, wondering whether they will make it back alive.
This is part of the job for Air Force fighter pilots, but a love for the job and good training keep pilots ready to fight.
Lt. Col. Shamsher Mann, 62nd Fighter Squadron commander, has been flying F-16s for more than 15 years. He said his mother told him he was playing with airplanes before he could talk. He had two dream careers, either become a fighter pilot or play in the National Football League. Mann chose to focus on being a fighter pilot. He said it was a good thing that the first career choice worked out since career choice two was never going to happen.
“I love my job,” Mann said. “I’ve had the opportunity to fly all over the world and go to combat in the F-16. It’s been exciting and rewarding.”
Mann, who played football in high school, compares flying jets to being good at a sport. Pilots train every day just like athletes, so when it’s time to perform a mission they’re ready.
Mann deployed to Iraq for Operation Northern Watch, Operation Southern Watch and Operation Iraqi Freedom. He describes his first combat mission with gut-wrenching detail.
“It was intense,” Mann said. “You spend years training for combat scenarios and the first time you go into hostile territory, it’s like wrapping up all the emotions you’ve ever felt — love, hate, fear, anger — all at once and magnifying them a thousand times. Your heart is beating a thousand beats per minute.”
Pilots spend three to seven hours in the air or sometimes even more flying combat sorties. They receive taskings from the ground and are continuously on the hunt for the enemy. Jets are refueled in flight, targets are updated and munitions are put on targets until none are left.
During combat operations, pilots must be calm and calculating while dealing with the intensity of being in combat. This means maintaining the highest level of personal readiness.
“We mentally rest, stay in good physical condition and eat right,” said Maj. Derek Pegg, 62nd FS assistant director of operations. “We really don’t know how long we’re going to be airborne. We must mentally get ourselves in gear and define what it is we’re going to accomplish.”
Stakes are high when flying a $30 million aircraft into combat and getting shot at, Mann said. It’s mentally and physically straining, but pilots constantly prepare.
“Pilots go through survival, evasion, resistance and escape training, and have very specific plans for how to evade the enemy or what to do if they are captured by the enemy in combat,” he said.
Being a fighter pilot sometimes means having to put bombs on target. It’s a matter of life and death, kill or be killed, and is a fact pilots must accept.
“Knowing you are putting ordnance toward the earth, you accept that fact as part of war,” Mann said.
“There are people on the ground shooting at you or maybe friendly troops, and both of you are trying to get the other first. It’s a matter of one being successful and the other not. When the nation says it is time to go to war, all hesitation needs to go by the wayside. You reflect on missions in quiet times, but I’ve never had any regrets.”
Mann has described his most intense missions as almost spiritual experiences and says they gave him confidence that his priorities in life were right. His advice to young pilots is to fly with a zeal.
“Fly fighters like an athlete approaches his sport, with passion,” Mann said. “You want to be a good fighter pilot and learn from your mistakes. You can’t treat it like a nine-to-five job. Our training prepares us for the mechanics of flying fighters, but to be a good fighter pilot you have to put in passion and effort.”