May 06, 2007

Pilot is aiming for a 1,500-mph ride in an F-16

Jet fighter trainee started as a teenager earning money to pay for flight lessons.

1st Lt. Gene Pecar likes to go fast. Soon he'll have the chance to experience 1,500 mph in a F-16 Fighting Falcon.

"It's like a roller coaster ride, only you have control and it's a lot better," he said.

Pecar is one of six students currently enrolled in the B Course at the Springfield Air National Guard Base learning to fly F-16s.

He has been drawn to F-16s since he first saw one as a boy. To fly one was the ultimate goal.

He likes the fighter jet's multi-role capability and its reliability.

"It can do a little bit of everything," he said.

To get here, though, was a long path and he hopes to have a long career.

"I'd like to fly for as long as I'm here, until I'm too old and decrepit to fly," Pecar said.

As close to jets as possible

Becoming an F-16 pilot takes years.

Paying for lessons

Pecar, 23, grew up in Indiana after his family moved to the United States from the Ukraine. As a teenager, he washed dishes in a restaurant and worked as a bus boy to pay for his expensive civilian flying lessons.

Starting at 15, he worked his way up from gliders, eventually earning his commercial pilot rating for single or multi-engine planes.

He joined the Air National Guard when he was 17 years old, working as the crew chief for F-16s in Terre Haute, Ind.

In that job, he inspected the planes and prepared them for flight. He learned about the jets and operations.

"I wanted to do anything I could to get as close to the jets as possible," Pecar said.

He graduated from Indiana University in 2004 with a bachelor's degree in business.

Pecar then joined the 113th Fighter Wing, a Washington D.C. Air National Guard unit. Before coming here, he also attended officer school, water and land survival courses, and finally flight school in Texas, learning to fly trainer planes.

When he graduates, he will fly out of Andrews Air Force Base.

Wisdom to impart

The instructors in Springfield's 178th Fighter Wing have thousands of hours in F-16s, including overseas combat experience.

"They have a lot of wisdom to impart," Pecar said.

Well rounded

Students need to be well-rounded, have good grades, stayed out trouble and maybe played sports to show a competitive edge, said Capt. Keith Buddelmeyer.

Pecar believes good judgment and decision-making skills are key to being a fighter pilot.

Flight also has to become second-nature.

"Flying is just a means of getting to the fight," Pecar said.

The students also have to be motivated, Buddelmeyer said.

They start with three to four weeks of academics and flight simulators. They learn the basics and the ins and outs of the jet, such as the electrical systems, the hydraulics, the flight controls, the radios, how to start the engine, and how to take off and land.

It's constant studying and tests, in the classroom and on the computer. It's not unusal for the students to arrive at 7 a.m., leave at 6 p.m., Buddelmeyer said, and study more at home.

The base has four flight simulators where pilots practice flights, including two 360-degree, fully enclosed simulators.

"He has to be willing to put a lot of hard work in," Buddelmeyer said. "There are some long days that go along with it."

Faster than your brain

One of the planes Pecar flew in Texas was the T-38, his introduction to supersonic jets.

The speed is intense at first.

"Faster than your brain"

"You're trying to hold on for dear life because it's a lot faster than your brain is," Pecar said. "You're still on the ground and it's already 10,000 feet in the air."

The learning curve is steep, he said, but the training kicks in and he became comfortable in the jet.

Describing flight in a fighter is difficult, the acceleration unbelievable.

"You light the afterburners and you're off the ground and you're pushed back in your seat and your gear comes up and off you go," Pecar said. "It's pretty surreal. There's definitely a lot of times when I was just starting off and I sat there and said, 'Wow I can't believe I'm doing this.'"

Pecar is looking forward to his first solo flight in an F-16, a much more powerful jet than he has flown.

Flying an F-16 is hard work, Buddelmeyer said, but the best job in the world. Most of the time he gets to see the sun.

"You pop up through the clouds on a cloudy day and you're like, 'Welcome to my office,'" he said.

By Samantha Sommer. Contact: (937) 328-0363 or

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