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June 1, 2012
By Phil Scott
It's a typical day for Lt. Col. Mark Richey of the Air National Guard. He and the co-pilot he's training have departed NATO's Kandahar Air Base in a C–27 twin to deliver and pick up soldiers and supplies from forward bases in western Afghanistan. Those runways are short, some are crummy, one is dirt, they’re all surrounded by mountains, and they’re all run by different countries—the U.S., Britain, Spain, Italy, et cetera. Richey and his co-pilot dump altitude quickly to avoid mountains and the rare machine gun or RPG, and slam it down on the runway, rattling the teeth of everyone in the cargo hold. Soldiers on-load and off-load along with supplies.
This is Richey’s eighth tour, which have ranged from six weeks to six months in conditions as diverse as a four-star hotel in Philippines to a tent in the middle of the desert. And he’s cucumber-cool. “Flying at night, on night vision goggles, in the Himalaya mountains, to an emergency airdrop at a drop zone in a large valley with known enemy activity in the area, tends to be a bit more stressful than flying a bunch of families to Orlando for their Disney vacation,” he says. Richey flew for Southwest—his real full-time job. He is a GA pilot and a fan of the Cessna 172 and Piper Warrior.
The youngest of four children, Richey first fell for flying at age 5. “I am one of those people who said when I grow up, I wanna be an Air Force pilot.” When Richey went to the local ROTC recruiter during college, he was informed that pilots were being pink slipped. But just before turning 24—and despite overwhelming odds—he got a pilot slot. “My flying career really began with Air Force pilot training, and what an awesome experience that was,” he says. “I’ve never been so humbled in my life, but at the same time, I was like a kid in a candy store.”
But dusty, pot-holed, rocket-attacked Kandahar is anything but a candy store. “There is a funny saying about how to pass the time when you are deployed,” he says. “Sleep ’til you are hungry and eat ’til you are tired.” Still, pilots fly a lot and plan missions and exercise, and many pursue additional education at the base school.
A few deployments ago Richey was home in Chico, California, and ran into his childhood barber—whom he hadn’t seen for years. When Richey told him that he was a pilot in the Air Force, the barber choked up.
You used to sit in my chair and tell me how you wanted to be an Air Force pilot when you grew up, he said. You are one of the only people I know who followed their lifelong dream.
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