Sunday, April 1, 2012

Riverside native soaring home for air show

By Jerry Soifer, Correspondent
The Press Enterprise
Published: 24 March 2012 04:37 PM

U.S. Air Force Maj. Mike McKee, a Riverside native, will come home to help the city celebrate its 20th air show, an event he first attended as a Riverside Poly High student.

The show has had military participation every year, but McKee will be the first active duty airman from Riverside to take part with the jet fighter he flies.

Riverside Airshow Coordinator Tom Miller said, "We always thought it would be wonderful to have one of our home town boys come home bringing a real fighter jet with him. It (McKee coming home) doesn't get any better than that."

McKee, flying an A-10 Thunderbolt II, will accompany Maj. John Collier, also flying an A-10, to Riverside from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tucson, Ariz., where they are stationed. They will exhibit their planes on the flight line with about 200 aircraft. Collier will take part in a Heritage Flight with the P-38 Lightning, a World War II-era fighter, Saturday afternoon. Two Navy F/A-18s will also fly in and be on display.

McKee, 37, is a decorated combat pilot of the A-10, a twin-engine jet that was originally designed to take out Soviet tanks. When McKee fires the Gatling gun in the plane's nose, he said, "The entire aircraft rumbles violently."

McKee has flown in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the early days of the Iraq war in 2003, his A-10 was part of an attack on Iraqi anti-aircraft guns and surface-to-air missile sites defending the Baghdad Airport. He received an air medal for his role in the attack that enabled coalition forces to seize the airport quickly and secure the capital of Iraq.

McKee's parents, Steve and Jan, said they are thrilled to see their son fly the A-10 for the first time. They and Mike McKee's first flight instructor, Steve Scott, will be on hand Friday to see him land in Riverside.

McKee said the trip is as thrilling to him as it is to his parents. He said he's worked hard to draw the assignment to Riverside. While his Air Force colleagues bunk at the Mission Inn, McKee will stay at his parents' home, now in the Hawarden Hills.

"To show my jet up close will be a career highlight," said McKee. He especially wants to show his plane to Scott, who taught him how to fly a Piper Cherokee 20 years ago.

Scott, the safety officer of the Riverside Pilots Club, said he is not surprised that McKee grew up to be an Air Force pilot.

Scott said, "He caught on right away. It was his enthusiasm and natural feel for the controls. He was meant to fly."

The McKee family is rooted in Riverside. Steve McKee, also a pilot, served eight years on the Riverside Airport commission. Mike McKee said he intends to settle his wife, Kathee, and their three children, Olivia, 8, Caden, 5, and Lincoln, 3, in Southern California when his career, now at 15 years, in the service ends.

McKee was an honor student and a member of Poly High Class of 1993. He then gained an appointment to the Air Force Academy. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in physics in 1997.

His love of military aviation took shape at his first home in Riverside, which was near March Air Force Base. The Cold War was on, and there were plenty of planes coming and going. The F-4 Phantom was his favorite.

"I've been looking at planes in the sky as long as I can remember," McKee said.

When he graduated from the academy he was given his first choice of assignments: Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training, which at the time graduated only fighter/attack pilots at the base in Wichita Falls, Tex. The Air Force was in need of A-10 pilots when he graduated, so he was assigned to the A-10, not the sleek, supersonic jets he sought to pilot.

The A-10 is the ugly ducking of the nation's war planes. Its top speed is 420 mph, well below the speed of sound.

"Pilots affectionately call the A-10 the 'Warthog,'" said McKee. "It gained that reputation because of its unsightly and bumpy appearance, similar to a real warthog."

McKee added, "I feel truly blessed to fly the A-10. It's a fantastically fun aircraft to fly and it does its primary mission (close air support) plus a whole lot more. The aircraft was designed around a 30 mm Gatling gun, which is optimized to penetrate armor on Soviet tanks in the Cold War era … What it's like to fly the A-10 centers mostly on shooting the gun."

Shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, McKee was assigned with his squadron to the Al Jaber base in Kuwait. After Al Qaeda and Taliban forces were routed on the ground, he was one of the first American pilots to be transferred to the Bagram base in Afghanistan.

McKee was rotated back to Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina. While stationed there he met Kathee, his future wife. He and Kathee planned a wedding in the summer of 2003. Then word came down that he would be sent to Kuwait to be ready for the start of the Iraq war. They decided to marry in the church where they had met.

McKee flew missions in support of Army troops as they moved up the corridor of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in Iraq. As the Army moved toward Baghdad, he flew missions aimed at Iraqi military supplies. When the Army and Marines had Baghdad isolated, he said his plane took out Iraqi Republican Guard tanks, armored personnel carriers and other equipment from as low as 100 feet above the ground.

He has also served in South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines. Due to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan last year and a shift of U.S. personnel, he was put in command of U.S. Air Force personnel — 150 people — in the Philippines.

"(It was) a completely unexpected leadership opportunity which turned out to be very rewarding," said McKee.


Please note: This news article is about Maj. Mike McKee and Maj. John Collier. Both of them are A-10C pilots with the 355th FW from D-M who will participate in the 20th Riverside Airshow on March 31, 2012.

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