Glenwood-bred fighter pilot returns after 159 days at sea and 48 missions
Ask Navy Commander Mark Hunter why he likes flying F-18 fighter jets, and he’ll pause and say, “It’s very exhilarating.”
Give him a second more and he’ll continue, “Growing up I ski raced (at Sunlight). … It’s very exciting, but I don’t know how to describe it. It’s serving your country, all that stuff wrapped up in one.”
His most recent Naval assignment put him on the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier in the North Arabian Sea south of Pakistan, where he was a squadron commander in charge of a dozen F-18s.
From October through March, Hunter flew 48 missions over Afghanistan as part of the military operation Enduring Freedom.
Hunter comes across more like a low key college math teacher than a Tom Cruise style “Top Gun” pilot, although he does drive a red Porsche 911. He lives in Virginia with his wife, Susan, and “a pack of munchkins,” and was in town last week visiting his parents, George and Pat Hunter. Folks might have spotted Hunter smacking golf balls with his dad at Aspen Glen, or on Aspen’s ski slopes.
Hunter, who turns 42 this month, graduated from Glenwood Springs High School in 1978, and was captain of the golf team. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1982 with a bachelor’s degree in general engineering, and was golf team captain there.
“I have lots of memories of playing golf in West Glenwood,” said Hunter, who is 5’10” and a tightly built 165 pounds. “I was a skinny kid back then.”
For his Aspen Glen golf round, Hunter shot an 81. “Not bad after a seven-month lay off,” he said.
But people are more interested in his experiences in the war on terrorism.
“I got shot at,” Hunter said, but not a lot. There was some anti-aircraft artillery, but most of the Taliban and al-Qaida’s fire power was hand held weapons like stinger missiles and rocket-powered grenades.
“In an F-18, we typically remain above the altitude they can get us,” he said.
Hunter usually flew from 25,000 to 30,000 feet above ground level, but occasionally dropped down to 10,000 feet to drop dumb bombs.
The U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt was deployed on Sept. 19. “When Sept. 11 happened, we knew it wouldn’t be a typical deployment.”
When the Roosevelt arrived at its destination in the North Arabian Sea on Oct. 17, it joined the carriers U.S.S. Enterprise, U.S.S. Kitty Hawk and U.S.S. Carl Vinson.
The United States was conducting 24-hour missions over Afghanistan at the time, and the Roosevelt’s pilots drew night assignments for the first six weeks.
“The entire staff turned night to day. We’d get up at 6 p.m. for breakfast, and fly from around 10 p.m. to noon or 1 p.m. the next day,” he said, referring to the entire cycle of work. About one-third of Hunter’s missions were at night.
“I think we all prefer to fly in the day,” he said. “It’s certainly easier to land on the ship in the day.”
For the record, Hunter has topped the 1,000 carrier landings mark, an accomplishment reached by about 800 pilots in naval aviation history.
A typical mission in Afghanistan, from leaving the carrier to returning, could last five to eight hours, with take offs and landings every 90 minutes. Sometimes the targets and coordinates were set before he left the ship.
More likely, Hunter would arrive over Afghanistan, where AWAC communications aircraft would put him into contact with ground-based forward air controllers.
“They might say `Send me a couple of F-18s or F-14s. We’ve got some targets here,'” Hunter explained.
“He might say `You see the bend in the river … a half mile up is a building’. We’d get a dialogue going until he talked my eyes onto the target area,” he said.
When Hunter hit his targets, the forward air controller would likely call back and say, “Great hit!”
Other times, the forward air controller might designate the target with a laser. Targets included tanks and other vehicles, which could be on the move, or buildings and caves.
Hunter said it’s mentally tiring for a pilot to return with his entire load of bombs. When bombs are dropped on a mission, he said, “You come back feeling good .. knowing you helped.”
Missions that took eight hours were perhaps most difficult. “We’re not used to spending that much time in the cockpit. That took some getting used to.”
The 5,500 troops aboard the Roosevelt set a U.S. Navy record for most number of days at sea, Hunter noted.
“We spent 159 consecutive days at sea without a port call,” said Hunter.
But mood and morale remained high for the entire deployment.
“They knew the folks back home were thinking about us, and supporting us, and we need to do our part in the war on terrorism. They were proud to be doing their part,” he said.
Still, by the time the Roosevelt steamed into port at Norfolk, Va., on March 27, he said, “The food was beginning to look the same, and people were getting tired of movie reruns on TV.”
Hunter will return to the Roosevelt in May as the ship’s operations officer. He plans to stay in the military as long as he’s having fun.
His dream job after retirement?
“I’d like to be a ski and golf instructor,” he said.
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