07/22/07 — Vice Commander Col. Chuck Duke takes final flight

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Vice Commander Col. Chuck Duke takes final flight

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on July 22, 2007 2:00 AM

Chuck Duke was not the little boy on the flight line telling those around him he would be a pilot some day.

He did not doodle jets during middle school math class.

The beginning of the Air Force colonel's career was more like a cold call -- a random stop at his university's ROTC office, a scholarship offer he could not afford to turn down.

But as the 4th Fighter Wing vice commander's retirement takes effect, the career command pilot will tell you he is glad he decided to drop by that East Carolina University office.

It was a moment that would define his life.

"They were recruiting," Duke said. "They said, 'You can come in here and monitor a class. You don't have to get a haircut, just see if you like it.' But I had no experience flying, never had any interest in flying. I just wasn't exposed to it."

Then, a few weeks later, his interest peaked when he was offered a scholarship.

"You know, when you have five kids in your family and you go home and tell mom and dad, 'Hey, the school just offered me an ROTC scholarship,' I was in the Air Force now," he said. "I said, 'Flying, this will be great.'"

Duke finished his degree at ECU and married his "high school sweetheart" before leaving for his first assignment.

"My initial intention was four, maybe six years," he said. "Now, it's 30 years later and here we are."

In the beginning, there was no guarantee Duke would ever see time in a pilot seat.

In fact, he went to navigation school before earning a spot in pilot training.

But it wasn't until his first solo ride that Duke realized he was born to fly.

"You're going through pilot training, and you're with your instructor all the time. And then one day, he lands the plane and says, 'Pull over here. Shut off that right engine,'" Duke said. "He gets out and says, 'You're all clear. Now go by yourself.' Wow. You're sitting there, and you're thinking, 'I can do this.'"

Out of training, he was selected to fly the F-16.

Still, he will choose a different fighter if you ask him about his favorite jet.

"The (F-15)E model has an advantage," he said. "It can carry more ordnance. Our jobs are dropping bombs on people, supporting the army and our nation. When it comes to that, you can't beat the E model. It's just a great airplane."

But Duke will be the first to tell you that a great jet means nothing without the right team to support it.

"I get amazed every day when I go out there on that flight line," he said. "Just in the last couple of weeks, you can see the North Carolina summer heat and humidity and those airmen are still out there. They are sweating while it's raining and during thunderstorms, and they still get the job done. It's a total team effort."

So the colonel feels "fortunate" to retire from a base and community he characterized as the best in the Air Force.

"Seymour Johnson has that reputation. No matter what the Air Force asks us to do, we deliver," Duke said. "It's all because of these hard-working airmen who come here each day and get the job done. And they get the support they need from the community."

He has admittedly grown fond of Wayne County during his current stint here and from 1994 to 1998 when he commanded the 335th Fighter Squadron "Chiefs" here at Seymour.

So the Dukes are building a home in Walnut Hill and expect to move in a few weeks from now.

"This is going to be home," he said. "I want our grandkids to know this is really where grandma and granddad live."

Duke will surely miss those moments of glory -- like the time he led a non-stop mission to Qatar and then Iraq to show that the 4th could hit any target, anywhere, within 24 hours.

"That was a great accomplishment," he said. "Great for the wing."

But for a man who joined the Air Force to take some of the financial burden of college off his parents, Duke said he can get past knowing he will never fly another combat mission.

"You think, 'I can't just give it up after 30 years, I'm going to miss it," he said. "It's going to be difficult. But to me, life has always been about the family. It's my time to be with them, and I've accepted that."