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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Never a Dull Moment in Life of U.S. Top Gun

MANAS, Kyrgyzstan -- As he roamed the night skies in his F/A-18 Hornet, pilot Lieutenant Colonel Michael Parkyn's radio squawked for help: Coalition troops wanted a bombing run on an Afghan hilltop where hostile forces were feared to be lurking. The call, on the night before the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, was one of the few times that Parkyn has dropped bombs since he started flying out of this Central Asian base in April.

Parkyn's mission here has been drastically different from when he flew over Iraq 11 years ago during the Gulf War, unleashing thousands of kilograms of bombs on Saddam Hussein's forces.

Over Afghanistan, his fighter-bomber cruises the skies for long hours, ready to provide cover for U.S., Afghan and other allied troops on the ground if they need it.

"It's been quite an endurance contest," Parkyn said. Though Kyrgyzstan is relatively near Afghanistan, Parkyn said his jets still have a 1 1/2-hour flight, about 800 kilometers, to get to the northern Afghan border. To get to southern and eastern Afghanistan, where most of the action takes place, it's about 1,300 kilometers -- or about two hours' flight time, with refueling. Because of the time it takes, the warplanes usually stay in the area for at least a couple hours to make it worth their while before heading back to base.

Sometimes, if pilots volunteer to stay and are needed, missions can stretch up to 9 1/2 hours -- strapped in full flight gear sitting in the cramped cockpit of his jet.

To eat during their marathon flights, pilots carry energy bars and small bottles of water, Parkyn said. When nature calls, the pilots use a sponge-like device with a tube inside their flight suits.

Parkyn will have flown 42 missions in Afghanistan by the time his squadron heads home to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in California by the end of the month. During some 200 hours in the air, he's dropped only a "handful of bombs."

"It's been low intensity, that's the nature of it," he said.

Parkyn's assignment in Kyrgyzstan has been dramatically different from his service in the Gulf War. Back then, when he flew an A-6 Intruder bomber against Iraq, Parkyn said he dropped more than 90,000 kilograms of bombs on Iraqi forces. "There were a lot of targets out there," he said. In Afghanistan, "when we go out there, the probability of an attack is lower."

The danger was also greater in Iraq. In Afghanistan, coalition planes ruled the skies in the absence of any real Taliban air force. Parkyn expressed confidence his fellow pilots were up to the task if they're called to duty against Iraq, but said for now he was looking forward to getting back home to his family. "I try not to think about it too much -- you can worry about too much with all the contingencies on the horizon," he said. "I'm glad I'm not the commander in chief. -- I'd have a heavy burden today."