What’s It Like To Be A Real Top-Gun Fighter Pilot? We Asked One. – Forbes


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Lt. Col. James "Face" Collins with an F-16D fighter jet he just flew at Eielson AFB, Alaska, March ... [+] 2022.

Jim Clash

Lt. Col. James “Face” Collins, 39, has been in the U.S. Air Force for 16 years, most of that time flying fighter jets. He has deployed to Afghanistan, flown Eurofighter Typhoons with the Royal Air Force and currently leads the Combat Training Squadron at Eielson Air Force Base just below the Arctic Circle near Fairbanks, Alaska. After my thrilling supersonic ride in the backseat of an F-16D last week with Collins at the controls, pulling 9 G’s in the process, he and I sat down (um, I was a bit wobbly) for an interview back at the base. Following are edited excerpts from a longer chat with the affable father of four.

Jim Clash: Talk about the challenges of flying up here in the arctic versus areas further south?

James Collins: Anywhere else, say like, Guam, where I was a couple of months ago, I wear this simple flight suit I have on now, a vest, harness and G-suit. I didn’t have to wear special boots, thermals, a soft shell jacket and all kinds of other things that we had on today. That adds complexity. You can’t see a lot of switches in the cockpit [because of the bulky clothing], like the oxygen regulator. You have to feel it. Any place else, I can look down and see all of that stuff. Now imagine it being pitch black at night on top of that. The real challenge is the big bay doors to the hanger up here. When it’s below freezing but above 0 F, they can be open for 30 minutes. When it’s below 0, you have only 15 minutes otherwise pipes in the building will start bursting. You have to be expeditious. I’ve also been on the runway when it’s hard to raise the landing gear because the hydraulic fluid is so cold. Metal does not like being cold. Things break. It’s combating all of those elements - the darkness and cold in winter are not only challenging to our crew, but also to the equipment.

Clash: Any close calls during your career?

Collins: Yes. Oddly enough, not in combat, but in training. I had a 66-foot pass, or just 66 feet of clearance between another plane at 200 knots of closure, nose to tail. We were both looking at the same thing. We have contracts when we’re maneuvering visually with each other during flight. Somebody is always supposed to be de-conflicting from the other. At one point, the contract broke down. We weren’t looking out for each other. It was just by divine intervention that out of the corner of my eye I saw something. I thought, “That looks weird,” and reacted. I had to roll completely upside down and pull as hard as I could on the jet. It was the only thing that kept us from colliding. The other plane had no idea until after we had passed. The pilot told me later that he thought we had actually hit because the exhaust from my engine shook his jet. That’s my closest call, and something I brief the young guys and gals that come in now because it happens so fast. It’s been several years, and I’ve just gotten to the point where I can have a conversation about it.

Clash: What’s your own biggest fear?

Collins: I’m afraid of letting down the team. It’s what drives people in the military, I think, especially in the fighter-jet community. That keeps me sharp. Twelve-hour days while going through upgrades before deployments are not uncommon. If you fail on your own, that’s another thing. But if you let down the mission, that’s the worst feeling. Everybody does it, because that’s how you learn, right? Actually, we set people up in positions that they fail safely, so they can learn.

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 17: The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds fly overhead during pre-race ... [+] ceremonies for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 17, 2008 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Getty Images for NASCAR

Clash: You fly F-16s, as does the famous Thunderbirds air team. How does one get a Thunderbirds gig?

Collins: You send in an application, a few of your records, a photo - you have to look the part, right, you have to look cool [laughs] - and then you usually go interview. You’ll have a flying interview, and then one like this. A flying interview is like, “You made some mistakes, but you learned from them. You’re teachable.” The in-person interview is, “Can you interact with people on a human level, are you a positive person, do you present a good image?” I’ve thought about applying, but every time something comes up like, “Do you want to go fly fighter Typhoons with the Royal Air Force? Hey, do you want to get a Master’s Degree from King’s College [in London]? Do you want to come up to Eielson and lead the Combat Training Squadron and fly with aggressors?”

Clash: Does your wife worry about you flying fighter jets every other day?

Collins: Yes, she does. Oddly enough, it’s one of those things we don’t talk about.

Clash: What about your kids?

Collins: They’ve been around it ever since they were born. It’s one of those things where we go out and look at jets, kind of matter-of-fact. But every few years I write a letter to all of them that goes into a safe. It sounds morbid, but it’s the things I’d like them to remember day after day if I weren't there. That’s for if something ever happens. Hopefully, that safe will never have to be opened.

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