09/03/06 — A new flight plan: Holmes says goodbye

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A new flight plan: Holmes says goodbye

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on September 3, 2006 2:04 AM

The first time Col. Mike Holmes fired up an F-15, he realized that the jet was much like its namesake -- the eagle.

"You climb up that ladder and you're head is sitting 12 feet off the ground and you start the airplane up," he said. "All the lights come on, all the noises start sounding ... It really feels like something that's alive. You can almost feel it waking up and coming to life around you. It was all very exciting."

The thrill of that first ride quickly consumed his thoughts -- even while grounded, Holmes' mind never left the clouds.

"If you talk to people about me as a lieutenant, they'll tell you I was just obsessed with (flying)," he said. "I came in for the first brief every morning in case somebody was late because if somebody was late and you were there, you could slip in and fly in their place ... Or we were sending cross-country out every weekend and I would bring a bag with me on Friday because on one in three or four, somebody would have a sick kid or something and couldn't go, and I'd be ready. I flew absolutely every time I had the opportunity."

More than 3,000 hours in the air later, Holmes said he has realized that while he joined the U.S. Air Force to fly jets, he stuck around to be a friend and leader to the men and women who helped make his dreams a reality. And as commander of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base's 4th Fighter Wing, he has done just that for the past two years.

"Flying is a fun part of my job and an important part of my job, but the reason I stayed in the Air Force was to be able to take care of those 25 people behind every crew member," Holmes said. "To make sure they have the support they need. You learn, as you grow up in the Air Force, that there's a team of 5,000 people here. Without any of those 5,000, things don't happen, from the people who make sure we have something to eat and a place to live, to the people who make sure we have parts for our airplanes and fuel to go into them ... For those couple hundred aircrew members, there are about 25 people standing behind each one of them. If they don't do their job, the exciting part, the glamorous part, doesn't happen."

In his two years as commander, Holmes said he has seen "nearly everything" out of his airmen. From deployments in support of American forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and New Orleans to the construction of state-of-the-art facilities on base -- through the good times and hard ones -- he has been an institution on Seymour.

Now, it's time for a new flight plan.

Holmes will relinquish command of the 4th Fighter Wing at a formal ceremony Thursday, marking both the end of an era and a new beginning for him and his family at the Pentagon.

As he prepares to take on a new challenge -- to once again spread his wings and fly -- he remembers all he has gained from life as part of the Seymour Johnson, Goldsboro and Wayne County communities.

He knows he is part of a legacy that was strong when he got here, and will continue to flourish long after he has moved on to his next assignment.

"There's a great heritage here (at Seymour)," Holmes said. "You're sitting in this room with pictures from our past and seeing things that have happened. We had the Eagle Squadron guys here for the dedication of Heritage Park, men in their 80s now, and 90s, who left the United States as teenagers because they couldn't wait to go fight Hitler and the Germans ...

"That's our very beginning -- people who just couldn't wait to get into the fight."

The thousands of men and women who serve at Seymour Johnson now have the same spirit, Holmes said, and they will continue to write their names into U.S. military history.

"One of the things I try to talk to people about now is that beyond that heritage, in the last 15 years, this wing has been involved in three or four major wars, however you want to look at it," he said. "Really, they have set their own traditions and their own heritage that people will be looking back at 50 years from now and marveling at the things that the wing did in the Strike Eagle. It's been a lot of fun being a part of that."

Holmes will also miss the feeling you get in a military town -- the love and support the people of Goldsboro and Wayne have shown him and his airmen.

"It's not just a business relationship between Seymour and the town or county like you get in a lot of places," he said. "There is an organized, formal chain designed to support the base and take care of the base here. But over time, that has also turned into a friendship and commitment between the people who live in Goldsboro and Wayne County and the people who live and work on the base. That's the reason so many people come here and want to stay. It reaches out into the neighborhoods, the churches and the schools. It's almost like a marriage between the people of the 4th Fighter Wing and the people of Goldsboro and Wayne County."

And while he looks forward to an opportunity to lead in a new way, Holmes said it's bittersweet for a pilot to leave a fighter wing.

After all, in his heart, he is still that same young pilot grabbing every opportunity to fly.

He said he will never forget those moments in the clouds.

"We saw everything, from terrain that looks a lot like this, to the coast and Smoky Mountains, to the Mississippi River and the Great Plains, the Grand Canyon and the Rocky Mountains," Holmes said. "I flew across Alaska at night and saw that big moon and the glacier fields and all the big mountains."

"When you fly high, you put a lot of the atmosphere beneath you and you can really see a lot more stars than you're used to," he added. "I've had a couple of times when I was flying above the ocean at night, so there's no light pollution down below you and you're up at 30,000 feet so most of the atmosphere is below you. You see stars you never knew were up there.

"And you see meteors go by -- close enough so you can see the flames."

He will remember those moments -- and the airmen and support crews at Seymour Johnson -- as he starts his new command.

Holmes said he hopes the airmen he is leaving behind will have their own stories to tell of moments in the clouds and distinguished service on the battlefield. Of one fact, he is confident, however.

They will make him proud.

He hopes they have been proud of how he has led them -- in battle and in times of peace. He knows he will never forget the lessons they have taught him about courage, determination and dedication to a calling that is much bigger than themselves.

"How I would want to be remembered, if given the choice, would be as somebody who understood all that they sacrifice and all that they bring, to come do the job that we ask them to do," he said. "As someone who understood the sacrifices their families make as well -- spouses who pick up and move ... to the kids who pick up and go to different schools and leave their friends. I understand what that's like for them and I hope that they trusted that I have done my best to do what I can to make that easier on them. What I would want them to think is that I was somebody who trusted them and cared about them, and hope that I was somebody they trusted."