By Air Force Capt. Bryan Bouchard 455th Air Expeditionary Wing
BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan, December 11, 2015 — “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
Two thousand years after Chinese philosopher Laozi recorded this phrase, Air Force Col. Henry Rogers reached his own “thousand-mile journey” milestones while deployed to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, as an F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot.
Rogers, the 455th Expeditionary Operations Group commander, not only surpassed 3,000 flying hours in the F-16 on Oct. 29, he then eclipsed 1,000 combat hours in the venerable jet on Nov. 6.
“When I was a lieutenant, the only guys with 3,000 hours were old guys that I honestly wondered how they could still meet the physical and mental demands of flying fighters,” he said. “I guess I am one of those guys now, even though I don’t feel that old.”
According to F-16 aficionado websites, Rogers joins the ranks of fewer than 300 F-16 pilots worldwide to reach 3,000 hours and just a handful who have reached 1,000 combat hours.
“Many pilots have flown other airplanes throughout their careers, but I’ve always been assigned to F-16 combat squadrons for my flying assignments, so that means I’ve deployed a lot,” he said. “But that’s what we’re here for.”
The airframe in which Rogers has flown since graduating from pilot training in 1994 continues to play a role in his success, even 40 years after it first started rolling off the assembly line.
“The F-16 today is nothing like the F-16 from its early years, but rather than producing a new airframe, the F-16 constantly upgrades its software, computing capacity, and weaponry,” he explained. “Today’s F-16 is an all-weather fighter loaded with technology -- night-vision, GPS, datalink, advanced air-to-air missiles, sniper targeting pod, satellite communications, and the Helmet-Mounted Cueing System. It’s an extremely capable multi-role fighter and will be crushing the enemy for many years to come.”
Rogers understands first-hand how capable the F-16 can be as he is currently serving his eighth combat deployment. He credits his family with always being there for him throughout his career and many deployments.
“My wife and now my two boys have always been beside me throughout my career and we have traveled this journey together,” he said. “Our definition of success is finishing with no regrets with my family by my side.”
Fighter Pilot Life Not Like Movies
The colonel said that a work-hard, play-hard approach is a common perception about his profession, but what people see on television and in movies is not always reality.
“Fighter pilots are often romanticized, or stereotyped, as guys who always push the envelope and maintain a college fraternity lifestyle,” Rogers explained. “The fact is that flying fighters is and has always been a dangerous business, and thus we all take our job extremely seriously.
“There is always a new tactic or weapon to learn,” he continued. “Fighter pilots prove their worth by how well they know their aircraft and tactics, their ability to complete the mission despite the obstacles and threats, and by being a professional officer and aviator -- not by the antics you always hear about or see in the movies.”
What is the same as the movies, however, is the closeness of those who are in the business of flying some of the world’s fastest and most advanced aircraft.
“All told, there is a special camaraderie within the flying community and especially amongst the fighter pilots who develop a bond of trust and mutual respect due to the responsibility we carry for each other and our personal actions,” he said.
When he was a lieutenant, Rogers said he was amazed at how many flying stories the older guys had. Over time, he’s amassed a lot of stories of his own.
He said, “Some of them are funny, from harmless mistakes that were embarrassing when told to the squadron the following Friday; some are sad from friends lost due to accidents; some frightening from being shot at by enemy surface-to-air missiles; and there are a few ‘There I was’ stories from combat or even exciting training stories still get my heart racing.”
But, the colonel explained, exciting stories and the people who’ve lived them aren’t exclusive to the flying community.
“Flying in combat is often called the ‘Tip of the Spear’ when considering all of the worldwide Air Force operations and activities,” Rogers said. “We highlight the tip of the spear because it is visible and exciting, but everyone at Bagram, plus many staffs and home-station airmen, all form the critical team necessary to get our airplanes in the air. Every airman counts.”
While no two people have the same career, he said, every path is interesting and unique.
“It’s our career diversity that makes us collectively a much stronger fighting force,” Rogers said. "We celebrate notable events such as 3,000 hours or 1,000 F-16 combat hours, but the reality is that every airman has an interesting story worth sharing. All airmen at Bagram are operating at the tip of the spear.”