Over the course of a career, military pilots can spend several thousand hours in the cockpit.
Those that do so in a specific model earn embroidered patches to honour their milestones: 1,000 hours, 2,000 hours,etc.
In the case of the F-16 Fighting Falcon, it’s likely that only around 50 pilots have ever flown beyond the 4,000 mark.
F-16.net is a popular website in the F-16 community that keeps track of who these people are. “Is our list of about 50 pilots over 4,000 hours complete? Probably not,” one of F-16.net’s editors, Jon Somerville, wrote in an email to Business Insider. Many pilots simply don’t file their hours.
Still, he thinks 50 pilots sounds about right for the size of the F-16’s 4,000 hour club.
Jack Stewart is a pilot for an Air Force reserve squadron. He’s reached nearly 2,000 in an F-18 Hornet, and wrote that getting there takes “at least three or four tours” — which aren’t necessarily combat tours — or around 10 years in the cockpit. Only one of his squadron’s pilots has logged over 4,000 hours, but a patch for any milestone is something pilots wear with pride.
CW Lemoine, a part-time reserve pilot, took three years and a tour in Iraq to clear 1,000 hours in an F-16, “and that was just flying my butt off. Iraq alone was like 60, 70 hours in two months. The average sortie is anywhere from four to eight hours.”
During those long sorties, Lemoine said he had to get refueled in flight just about every hour.
But in his opinion, the raw number of hours a pilot has spent in flight isn’t the best indicator of skill. “A thousand hours could mean you were doing cross countries every other week,” he said. “The credibility becomes knowledge in the aircraft; being an astute tactician; being able to perform.” Rank — whether a pilot is a flight lead or a wingman — is what carries the real weight.
That said, Lemoine added that no one logs several thousand hours on one type of aircraft without serious proficiency and years on the job.
“These were the guys who flew the F-16 back when it was brand new, back in the early ’80s,” Lemoine said. “And that’s kinda how they did it. They stayed in the F-16 their entire career.”
As for Lemoine, he recently switched over to the F-18, so his next patch may be a few years off. “I’ve got 250 hours in the Hornet. It’s pretty much like starting over,” he says as he laughs.
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