10/11/09 — Col. Mark Kelly reaches 3,000 flight hour mark

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Col. Mark Kelly reaches 3,000 flight hour mark

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on October 11, 2009 2:00 AM

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4th Fighter Wing Commander Col. Mark Kelly, left, is greeted by 4th Operations Group Commander Col. John Hruby after landing the Spirit of Goldsboro at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base Friday afternoon. A crowd of airmen and Military Affairs Committee members -- and Kelly's wife, Tanya -- were gathered to honor the colonel for reaching 3,000 flying hours in the F-15E, a milestone only a handful of Strike Eagle aviators have reached.

Mark Kelly didn't ask that a crowd of people stand waiting for him on the flight line when his F-15E touched down Friday afternoon.

He wasn't expecting a cake or standing ovation.

But the men and women who serve under the 4th Fighter Wing commander had different plans for their leader as he descended from his Strike Eagle just before sunset.

There was, after all, a reason to celebrate, they said.

Kelly's 1.7-hour flight had put him in an exclusive club, one the majority of F-15E aviators never reach.

The colonel hit 3,000 flying hours in one of the world's premier fighter jets, a milestone only a handful of people have accomplished.

So before 4th Operations Group Commander Col. John Hruby handed his boss a certificate and patch to commemorate the moment, he told Kelly's friends, comrades and wife, Tanya, just why he and dozens of others went against the colonel's wishes and threw him a reception.

"This is a big day for our profession. To reach the milestone we are going to celebrate with Col. Kelly today is very unique," Hruby said. "This patch is worth more probably than money can buy."

Kelly said he was humbled by the congratulations his fellow airmen extended to him when he stepped out of his aircraft.

But the wing commander has perspective.

"It's just hours," he said, before thanking the maintainers who, over the years, have made sure his Strike Eagles -- at home and at war -- were fit to fly. "3,000 hours is 3,000 hours in their jets, and they have always brought me home."

Kelly also thanked his fellow aviators -- the men and women he has flown alongside during training sorties and in combat -- who showed up by the dozens to honor his latest achievement.

"This was supposed to be a small event," he quipped inside the 333rd Fighter Squadron bar. "But there is no better way to spend a Friday then to have a beer, wing or slice of pizza with ... family. It's all about family. Don't ever forget that."

Kelly has been in the Air Force for more than two decades and has logged more than 5,000 flying hours in the T-37, T-38, F/A-18 and F-15E.

More than 400 of those were spent in combat during missions he led over Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq.