04/22/07 — Living his dream - Goldsboro native flying F-15E Strike Eagle

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Living his dream - Goldsboro native flying F-15E Strike Eagle

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on April 22, 2007 2:01 AM

James Jinnette was one of the dreamers -- jumping at the sound of hometown aircraft streaking overhead, vowing to become a fighter pilot like his heroes down the road at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.

He was the 7-year-old little boy standing on the flight line at an air show -- awestruck by the sight of an F-15 flown in for display.

"I went to my dad and said, 'Daddy, how do you fly it?' My parents wouldn't answer the question," Jinnette said. "They said, 'You need to go ask that man standing over there by the airplane.' So I did."

Today, the Air Force lieutenant colonel calls the next moment one of the most significant of his life.

"He said, 'Well son, if you study hard in school, go to the Air Force Academy, go to pilot training and work to be the very best at everything you do, you can learn how to fly fighters,'" Jinnette said. "I had my life laid out to me at age 7. Everything I did from that point until now has been basically aimed at this job."

It was a dream that was reinforced every day.

F-4 Phantoms were a constant in the skies over his Goldsboro home and with every pass, his motivation to meet his goal was renewed.

"Growing up hearing the F-4s flying, seeing the jets in a pattern over Wilber's or hearing them at night, it was just inspiring," Jinnette said. "My sister would always laugh at me because every time a jet flew over, I would run outside and look up -- every single time. I just knew that I wanted to be in one."

Today he is.

Jinnette graduated from Goldsboro High School in 1986 and went on to attend the U.S. Air Force Academy, following the advice given to him that day at the air show. Only now he had a new goal -- not just to fly, but to fly the F-15E Strike Eagle right here at home.

"As a cadet in the academy, I knew that one day, I was going to do whatever it took to get back home," Jinnette said.

He knew the community he had been raised in was worth coming back to -- just how much it cared about each man and woman stationed at Seymour Johnson, the support it showed to families of the deployed, the passing thank-yous, handshakes and waves.

"I have a friend whose neighbors mowed the grass for him when he was deployed -- didn't ask a question. They just took care of business for him," Jinnette said. "It's those little things. I think it's always been that way here, that connection."

Several bases and 3,000 hours in the air later, he and his wife, Meredith, are back in the "greatest military town in the world."

"I think the great thing about being here is I can see our great wing and our great base from the standpoint of a local looking at the base and I can see Goldsboro and Wayne County from the standpoint of a base person," Jinnette said. "I am so proud from both spectrums."

Proud, also, to raise his own 7-year-old, Hannah, in the place that set his life's course.

He takes a little piece of his eastern North Carolina home with him to the skies whenever and wherever he flies. He knows his Strike Eagle represents Goldsboro as much as it does Seymour Johnson.

That hometown connection was with him -- and the sense of duty that goes along with it -- one morning on a seemingly routine flight just west of Baghdad.

It was 3 a.m., not much action to report.

Jinnette and the members of the 335th Fighter Squadron under his command were keeping watch from the sky, helping to ensure safe passage through the desert for a group of 17 Army soldiers.

"We've got eyes on them, middle of the night, and they get ambushed with a road bomb and immediately begin taking fire from four directions in this dark city," the Chiefs commander said. "I'm talking to the controller and I recognize his voice but I don't remember how I knew him. He's calling in air power but it's in a town, so we can't deploy ordinance."

Jinnette knew it was going to take some quick thinking to save the American lives on the ground.

"We're left with the only thing we had available -- to fly as low and as fast as we could to cover them as they were treating their wounded and defending themselves," he said. "We held off the bad guys until the friendlies arrived. Later on, I found out that the controller was a friend of mine, someone I had flown with. For me, that one mission was everything in my life coming together. I view that moment -- more than any other bomb I've dropped in anger; more than any other weapons employment that I've seen -- for me, it just eclipses all that."

The courage displayed by his Chiefs was just more evidence that he had found a home, both at Seymour Johnson and the 335th.

"The greatest thing is, the Chiefs, we have a storied history, but the real story is the officers and enlisted folks in this squadron," Jinnette said. "I say that not in a proud way, but in a very humble way. They inspire me. They are that good -- the best I have ever seen. I feel honored to be here taking care of them."

And he feels honored to represent Goldsboro and his family at a base that he says has felt like home since the first time his parents drove him through the gates.

"It's so rare," he said. "I know how fortunate I am just be flying, much less to be in this squadron and flying this jet in my hometown. It's awesome. There is no place I'd rather be.

"It's a fantastic opportunity to be stationed anywhere near your home. To live here at Seymour, in my hometown with my family and my wife's family, it's just a real blessing."