Fairfield's top gun parts with the F-16
When work gets stressful, Lt. Col. Scott Brenton has often found himself flying 500 miles an hour over enemy territory, scribbling notes as to when, where, how, or if, he'll drop bombs on, strafe with guns, fall into orbit over or scream pass a hot spot to show some force.
The decision comes in consultation with the military officer on the ground who's called for air support. If shots are ringing over the radio, Brenton feels added stress and urgency.
"He'll talk my eyes onto where the bad guys are, and it's pretty important for him to get my eyes on where the good guys are, too, so I don't put the weapons down on the wrong place," he said.
Brenton, a 1983 graduate of Roger Ludlowe High School, is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force. Over the past 21 years, he's logged 4,069 hours flying an F-16 fighter jet, making him the 25th person in the world to eclipse the 4,000-hour mark. He's served tours in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq -- over 20 of them -- where, among other tasks, he's often been called on to aid ground troops caught in crossfires with opposing forces.
His work, he said, has never seemed like an actual job.
"Getting up and flying everyday has been a real privilege," he said.
"Fighter pilots are an interesting group of people, not at all like they're portrayed in Hollywood. Sure, there's a little bravado, but they're the most talented, professional people I've ever worked with, and they only have one thing on their mind: getting the job done, safely and successfully. These guys are very talented aviators."
Evidently, so is Brenton. After high school, he enrolled at the University of Notre Dame, where he joined the Air Force Reserve Officer's Training Corps (ROTC). After graduation, he relocated to Mississippi for flight school. There, he graduated tops in his class, allowing him in 1989 to pilot the jet of his choosing.
At the time, the F-15 Eagle -- a pure air-to-air combat fighter -- was the most popular jet. But the F-16 fighter can spar air-to-air, drop every type of bomb and weapon, fly low as well as high, and take on virtually every type of mission. The versatility appealed to him, so that's what he chose.
Brenton, who signs e-mails with his Air Force call sign, Gripper, recalls many harrowing moments over the course of his career. Once, while flying over the Mediterranean en route to Turkey, his fuel ran low and he had to force an emergency landing onto a narrow runway that had just shut down due to another emergency aircraft. While in northern Iraq in the mid 90s, a French pilot was shot down and it was unclear whether he had ejected safely. Brenton was the first to swoop past the crash site in search of the pilot, with skilled enemy surface-to-air munitions abounding. (The pilot was found and rescued.)
But his closest run-in with death came on the ground. While walking across a base in Iraq a few years ago, a rocket burst over his head, forcing him to dive under a Humvee for cover.
Brenton's career has dovetailed with significant geopolitical and technological progress. When he first launched in the late 1980s, the Russian MiG fighters were his sworn enemies. Within a few years, though, the Iron Curtain fell, NATO began expanding and he was able to touch MiG fighters on friendly runways.
In those days, dropping bombs wasn't far different than hurling objects out of a cruising train, he said. But laser-guided missiles were coming into vogue, which increased accuracy but only worked well in good weather.
Then came GPS-guided missiles. These days, provided he has good coordinates, he can land precision missiles in good weather or bad, day or night.
The Air Force, in fact, prefers to operate at night. From his cockpit then, Brenton can match infrared markers with those of ground officers to pinpoint targets.
"I can't use that in daytime, and it makes my job 10,000 times easier when I can," he said. "If we can just sparkle certain locations on the ground, rather than talking about roads and bridges and working my way down a road, we can speed the whole process up and clarify things."
The technology developments keep on chugging. The Air Force is now phasing out the F-16 in favor of the defter F-22 and other next-generation fighters, which include the unmanned, remotely-piloted aircraft (RPA) -- often called "predator drones" --that have been flying missions over Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years.
Once more, Brenton's career will follow suit.
On March 2, he flew for the final time in an F-16, a routine training mission at the Air National Guard's 174th Fighter Wing base in Syracuse, N.Y. During the exercise, he and a longtime friend shut off their sensors and searched for a "bad guy" zipping around the skies of upstate New York. Once they found him, they maneuvered in pre-planned tactics and engaged him.
"That's one of my favorite missions, which is why I chose to do it as my last one," he said. "It's very fast and furious, and lots of stuff happens all at once. Those are the kinds of things I find most enjoyable."
Brenton is now training to pilot the MQ-9 Reaper, an unmanned aircraft originally known as "Predator B," in Afghanistan from a control room in Syracuse. If all goes well, he'll be steering them as soon as this fall.
The RPAs have distinct advantages: Without humans in their cockpits, they require less machinery on board and can be designed for flights lasting up to 20 hours. They enable pilots to rotate every few hours, which helps give 24-hour coverage over a particular area. And should something fail, the machine will go down with no soldier on board.
But having trained eyeballs in a cockpit has its own advantages: A pilot has peripheral vision and can swivel his head, roll the plane up or down, dodge incoming missiles or spot things like ice forming on wings quickly.
From the ground, this instantaneous change in perspective can be tricky. Brenton said the screens a pilot watches are like "looking through a soda straw."
There are other differences. Pilots sit in air-conditioned rooms and are part of a team of about 40 officials helping navigate the aircraft. And when the jet accelerates or makes sharp turns, no one feels the extra G-force.
What's more, pilots don't get to train in what Brenton called the world's largest combat air space in the world, the swath of Nevada that includes what's better known to laymen as "Area-51."
"I've spent a large part of my life out there," Brenton said. "It's probably my favorite place to fly. Training can't get any more intense than there. It's a very motivating place to be."
Leaving the F-16, he said, was bittersweet. But his wife, two daughters, a contingent of reporters and couple dozen co-workers were standing around as he came taxiing back in for the final time.
"My family has supported me my entire career, followed me all over the globe, so that was cool," he said. "But it was hard to pull that throttle back for the last time on your last mission. But everyone does it, so it was my turn."