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What Does It Take To Be a Jet Pilot? Dashing Confidence Also in Thursday AMs report

January 10, 1991

What Does It Take To Be a Jet Pilot? Dashing Confidence Also in Thursday AMs report. With PM-Gulf Rdp, Bjt

IN CENTRAL SAUDI ARABIA (AP) _ Before last week, Dave Seawell was flying a passenger jet for American Airlines. Now he’s practicing combat missions against Iraq.

Instead of cruising above the U.S. East Coast in a McDonnell Douglas 80 jetliner, he’s zooming over a tortured desert landscape in an F-16 fighter- bomber.

″A pilot’s job is to make a passenger jet like a family bus, so they don’t feel the landing or the takeoff. Here, our job is to find, fight and destroy the enemy,″ Seawell said. ″There’s a tremendous mental adjustment.″

Seawell, 31, is a captain in the 169th Tactical Fighter Group of the South Carolina Air National Guard, also known as the Swamp Foxes. Twelve of the 40 pilots fly commercial jets in civilian life.

Now they have joined the real estate agents, dairy farmers and bankers stationed at the largest airbase in the Persian Gulf region, proudly wearing nicknames like Jet, Bullet and Cowman and unfazed by the cuts in pay they took to go on active duty.

But don’t get the idea they aren’t of the same caliber as regular Air Force pilots joining them in the 4th Tactical Fighter Wing.

Last year, the Swamp Foxes won the Air Force’s Gunsmoke competition, beating 15 teams from around the world in a six-day contest flown over the southern Nevada desert. It’s the Air Force version of the Olympics, testing pilots’ strafing, bombing and navigational skills. No other Guard unit had ever won the shootout.

″I think the U.S. Air Force is the finest in the world and we beat them,″ said Maj. George Robert ″Jet″ Jernigen, 37, the top gun in the Gunsmoke competition. ″We can stand toe to toe with anyone.″

Like all fighter pilots, the Swamp Foxes are confident to the point of being cocky. In their taut flight suits, they seem to strut even when standing still, and they relish being jaunty.

″Most of them aren’t all that thrilled by winning. They expect to win,″ Jernigen said. ″But they hate to lose at anything. The kind of guy you want in a jet is not someone who has self-doubts or is satisfied to be seventh- best.

″They’re hard to live with sometimes because they know the best way to do everything. It’s like having a bunch of thoroughbreds. You got to ride herd on them a little bit. But when you got them pointed in the right direction, they’re a pretty awesome force,″ he said.

Their sleek gun-metal gray fighters look like birds of prey on the runway. Their cockpits are a maze of screens, scopes and dials that help them find and lock onto enemy targets.

The $16 million F-16s cut through the sky at 1,688 feet per second with the afterburners screaming, and they can fly air-to-air combat missions or drop bombs on targets.

Lt. Col. Bob Gray, 49, of Asheville, N.C., retired last year as a real estate consultant. But he’s prepared to take on Iraqi pilots in aerial combat, once called dogfights but now known as swirling furballs because of the dizzying speeds.

″Your engagement lasts maybe 30 seconds at the most. Either you win or lose in that length of time,″ Gray said. ″Things happen in a hurry these days.″

The Swamp Foxes arrived just before New Year’s. Like other elements of Operation Desert Shield, they’re hoping for peace but planning for war if Saddam Hussein’s forces stay in Kuwait past Tuesday.

″The worst thing you can probably do with any pilot or serviceman is take him someplace and sit him there and let him be a weapon of policy,″ Seawell said. ″We’re warriors. We’re trained to fight and fly. Use me or send me home.″

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