A pilot's epic journey in the F/A-18

By Elaine Brabant. Photo courtesy Kurt McClung. Published in Boeing News Now

A Boeing flight instructor racks up 5,000 hours in his favourite jet - and even he can't believe it.

Kurt "Beavis" McClung flies an F/A-18 with two additional Boeing instructor pilots flying in formation behind him. (Photo courtesy Kurt McClung)

It's a milestone that makes the most seasoned fighter pilots marvel: 5,000 hours in a single aircraft.

Kurt "Beavis" McClung, a Boeing instructor pilot, recently surpassed those hours - all in an F/A-18.

McClung's journey spans 26 years and two careers. He first flew the jet, an F/A-18C, on April 5, 1996, as a U.S. Naval aviator. Now he is flying the F/A-18 to train Boeing customers who operate the F/A-18 across the globe.

Those roles combined allowed him to do something he never thought possible.

In a league of his own
To put 5,000 hours into perspective, Elliott Clemence, Boeing chief test pilot for fighters and jet trainers, explained that highly experienced Navy pilots have at least 2,000 flight-hours. But those hours aren't necessarily in the same aircraft.

"Getting to 5,000 in one jet is practically unheard of," said Clemence, who flew with McClung briefly in the U.S. Navy Reserve. "To be honest, I'm envious."

Fighter flights are much shorter than flights of other aircraft. The Navy's P-8A Poseidon, for example, flies missions up to 10 hours. The F/A-18 might perform its mission in less than an hour.

"It's even more staggering when you consider the 5,000 doesn't include time spent doing preflight and postflight briefings," Clemence said.

"If you spend an hour in the sky doing dogfighting maneuvers, you're probably going to spend two hours on the ground just evaluating them," he added.

A TOPGUN childhood. McClung had his choice of aircraft to fly.

Upon graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy and flight training, he passed on options such as helicopters and propeller-driven aircraft in favor of the F/A-18.

"I knew I wanted jets," he said.

Kitplanes for Africa

The certainty came from living with a fighter pilot all his life. McClung's father, an F-14 pilot, served as commanding officer of the U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School - more commonly known as TOPGUN.

The younger McClung graduated from the school's adversary course in 2006, learning to replicate tactics used by other countries so that he could provide realistic training.

Seeing his dad fly the F-14 "was very cool," McClung said. But the younger McClung welcomed the chance to fly a fighter with even more advanced capabilities, which the F/A-18 offered him.

Left: McClung (being held) is pictured with his family in the early 1970s. Also with him are his father, Lonny "Eagle" McClung, who served as an F-4 Phantom pilot; his mother, Audrey; and his sister, Kim. Right: McClung (right) greets his father during the younger McClung's retirement from the U.S. Navy in 2014. (Photos courtesy Kurt McClung)

A second chance
Two years after his military retirement, McClung accepted a job offer from Boeing.

He would teach new F/A-18 pilots how to do everything from starting up the jet to executing the most challenging mission sets. Though McClung would spend time in classrooms and simulators, he'd also get to fly the jet with or alongside his students.

"I can't tell you what a dream come true it was to get into the Hornet again," McClung said. "I fell in love with the job."

During more than seven years in his current role, McClung has missed only one flight. That was because he injured his hand, while away from work.

"I wouldn't recommend it, but I refused the anesthesia for my stitches," said McClung, who wanted to get back to flying as soon as possible. "I don't like days off. I'd much rather go to work and fly a Hornet than do almost anything else."

McClung is pictured here earlier this year flying an F/A-18. (Photo courtesy Kurt McClung)

What it takes to fly fighters
The advice McClung offers his current F/A-18 students is the same he would offer to anyone interested in flying fighters.

"You don't accidentally become a fighter pilot," he said. "You have to make it a goal and keep working at it, because you will 100% hit roadblocks."

He reminds his students that 80% of the work occurs outside of his classroom. They must practice what they've learned to get the most out of each lesson.

Even a veteran pilot like himself must keep putting in the work. In addition to staying current on the jet, physical fitness is essential for safety. McClung exercises regularly, varying his workouts according to the type of flying he is doing.

For instance, to prepare for flights with significant gravitational forces, he focuses on muscle-building and flexibility. That conditioning helps him maintain consciousness and prevent strains during flight.

As much as McClung puts into flying, what he gets out of it is so much more.

"Flying the F/A-18 is an absolute joy," he said.

Above: McClung completes carrier qualifications aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt in 2014. Below: McClung walks the flight ramp during a stop on the West Coast in his military career. (Photos courtesy Kurt McClung)

The next chapter begins
Soon McClung will take on a new job.

He is looking forward to flying another Boeing fighter - the F-15. But he's not finished instructing.

McClung will continue to train global customers in how to operate the jet safely and effectively. He welcomes the opportunity.

"I've never turned down a flight," he said. "I love flying. The more the better."

McClung (pictured at left with his son, Max, and wife, Kelly, and at right with his daughter, Karoline, following his last Hornet flight with the Navy) credits his family with supporting his aviation career. "It involves sacrifice on their parts, and I certainly could not have done it without their love and support," McClung said. (Photos courtesy Kurt McClung)

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