February 6, 2010 (by Capt. Byron Coward) - A pilot with the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing reached a monumental milestone while deployed on February 5th, 2010.
Lt. Col. Gary M. Middlebrooks
Lt. Col. Gary M. Middlebrooks prior to the flight that put him over the 4,000 hour mark in the F-16 on February 5th, 2010. [USAF photo by TSgt. Linda C. Miller]
of the 114th Fighter Wing, 175th Fighter Squadron of the South Dakota Air National Guard, logged his 4,000th hour of flying in the F-16 Fighting Falcon.
"It does feel rewarding even though it is just a number that doesn't really mean anything," said Colonel Middlebrooks. "I never expected to be able to keep flying this long, so it has been a real pleasure and joy for me."
Colonel Middlebrooks reached his 4,000th hour while flying close air support sorties over Iraq
in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He is assigned to the 332nd Expeditionary Fighter Squadron under the 332ndExpeditionary Operations Group.
"Achieving 4,000 hours of flight time is a milestone that only a handful of F-16 pilots will ever achieve," said Maj. Eric J. Gerber, 332nd Expeditionary Fighter Squadron operations officer and fellow 114th, SDANG pilot. "(Even in wartime) ANG
pilots accumulate approximately 150-200 hours of flight time annually, which makes it extremely difficult to ever achieve such a significant accomplishment."
According to Mr. David M. Hill of Lockheed Martin, Colonel Middlebrooks is the 33rd F-16 pilot to reach the 4,000 hour milestone. Two of the others to do so are also currently deployed to JBB - Col. Robert McCutchen
, 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing director of staff, and Col. David A. Lujan
, 332nd Expeditionary Operations Group commander.
This is Colonel Middlebrooks' third deployment to Balad. During his career, he has deployed more than six additional times to Saudi Arabia and Turkey
in support of Operations Southern and Northern Watch.
"The flying is about the same except that it's much quieter this time with the drawdown in progress," he said.
The Greenville, S.C., native is a 1984 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy. He completed undergraduate pilot training at Reese Air Force Base, Texas, where he served as an instructor pilot in the T-38 Talon aircraft. Initially, he was not thrilled about being an instructor.
"In the long run though, that actually worked out for the best," said Colonel Middlebrooks. "By getting my additional duty assignment out of the way right at the beginning of my career I was able to stay in fighters once I got in."
Following his instructor pilot assignment, he was selected for F-16 training at MacDill AFB
, Fla. As an active duty F-16 fighter pilot, he has been assigned to Ramstein Air Base, Germany; Kunsan AB, South Korea
; Shaw AFB, S.C., and Langley AFB, Va.
"The F-16 is probably the best multi-role fighter built in the last quarter of the 20th century," said Colonel Middlebrooks. "The Air Force and ANG have done a superb job of keeping it on the cutting edge of modern technology with constant improvements. When I first started flying them back in 1989 we only carried unguided freefall bombs and AIM-9
heat seeking missiles. Now the jet can employ anti-radiation missiles, laser and GPS
guided bombs and radar guided air-to-air missiles. Plus the night vision goggles, targeting pods and GPS bombs have turned what was originally a day, VFR
fighter into a night, all weather multi-role machine."
Colonel Middlebrooks transferred to the South Dakota Air National Guard in January 2000 after 15 years of active duty. He had heard about the Air Guard from former active duty friends. To him, joining the SDANG was an opportunity to continue flying the F-16.
"It's the best unit I've ever been a part of," said Colonel Middlebrooks. "Our maintenance folks are without exception the best there ever were. I have more confidence and comfort climbing into one of our wolf tail F-16s than any other plane in the world. They take great care of these jets and I'm sure I owe them my life for every one of those many hours I've flown. They spend 30 to 50 hours of work for every hour we fly."
"Lt. Col. Middlebrooks is our most experienced and seasoned aviators," said Lt. Col. Nathan B. Alholinna, 332nd Expeditionary Fighter Squadron commander and fellow 114th, SDANG pilot. "His mentorship and professional example sets the standard for peers, junior aviators, and enlisted corps. He is always the first to say I'll do it and delivers outstanding results every time."
As a full-time air guard fighter pilot, Colonel Middlebrooks jokes that he doesn't have a life outside of flying. Although reaching 4,000 hours is an achievement, Colonel Middlebrooks credits his wife and children for "putting up with my obsession for the last 26 years."
"We've been all over the world together and they've never complained once," he said.
Colonel Middlebrooks and his wife have three sons: Mark, a sophomore at Roosevelt High School; Nathan, a senior at the University of South Dakota; and Taylor who enlisted in the U.S. Army and is stationed in Italy
. Colonel Middlebrooks deployed to Iraq on the same week Taylor deployed to Afghanistan.
"After all these years of being the one deployed away, I finally have the experience my wife's had to live through of worrying about someone I love potentially being in harm's way," said Colonel Middlebrooks. "It turns out she's had the harder job all along."
Colonel Middlebrooks and many of the SDANG members will be returning home between mid February and early March.
"My goal when I graduated from the academy was to spend 20 years in a flight suit," said Colonel Middlebrooks. "I'm on my 26th year now and have been flying the whole time so I count myself very lucky. Flying the F-16 has been a dream come true for me."