'Scary' story: F-16 pilot takes final flight, reflects on career
OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea -- Leonardo da Vinci once wrote, "For once you have tasted flight you will walk the Earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return."
For Lt. Col. Douglas "Scary" Schaare, an F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot and Reservist in the 55th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, da Vinci's words couldn't be more true.
"Seeing some of the things that I've seen, there are no words for that; that's what I'm going to miss the most," said Schaare, who recently flew his final sortie in the Air Force and will retire with almost 5,000 flying hours - 4,600 in the cockpit of an F-16.
As if by fate, Schaare's tenure in the Air Force shares many similarities to a few different phases of flight.
Since childhood, Schaare knew he wanted to follow in his father's footsteps and "slip the surly bonds of Earth."
"My dad was a pilot in the Air Force, but I didn't really get to know him until he retired because he was gone a lot on TDYs - maybe even more then we are now - and he did a couple tours in Vietnam," Schaare said. "I can't even remember how old I was, but he took me up in a Cessna, and that was it. I just knew I wanted to be a pilot, and the older I got, instead of flying KC-135s or B-47s, which is what my dad flew, I knew I wanted to fly fighters."
Initially getting his start in the F-4E Phantom, he transitioned to the RF-4C Phantom before finally climbing into the cockpit of an F-16.
Even though he's flown the Viper for the last 20 years, Schaare never forgot one particular piece of advice he picked up while flying the F-4.
"On one of my first rides in the F-4 my instructor told me 'it's a beautiful jet, but it and every aircraft you're ever going to fly should say I will take care of you, but if you don't take care of me I will kill you,'" Schaare said. "It's a dangerous business. That's why we have prohibitive maneuvers, and training rules. Pretty much every rule and reg is written in blood. There's a lot of guys out there that made a mistake and it cost them their lives."
That lesson was just a piece of the advice pie that Schaare would take with him to his next assignment at George Air Force Base, Calif., where he cut his teeth on the F-4.
"I pretty much looked up to all the pilots when I first got to George because they were all 3,000-5,000 hour, multiple-tour Vietnam guys - total fighter pilots at heart," Schaare said. "Those guys lived and breathed fighter aviation, so that was a great place to grow up and learn how to be a better fighter pilot."
After serving a tour in Korea as an air liaison officer, or ALO, Schaare left the F-4 behind and transitioned to the F-16 at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. Schaare would then serve at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, the assignment that had the most impact on his 25-year career.
"When I got to Mountain Home they had just built the whole concept of the air intervention composite wing, and they really stacked the deck," Schaare said. "There were a lot of patch wearers - weapons school graduates - at every level, which made it such a great place to learn. A lot of the pilots that were there are colonels or generals now. We also flew way more than we fly now. For basically three straight years, everybody in my flight averaged 24 sorties a month."
Schaare was then able to pay it forward and pass along his knowledge when he was selected to be an instructor pilot back at Luke.
Even though Schaare had a spotless flying record when it came to mishaps, he experienced plenty of close calls throughout his 25-year career.
"One time when I was an instructor at Luke, I was in the back seat and had a student up front doing a 1-v-1 intercept, and there was another student with another IP on the other side," Schaare said. "I asked him 'Are you sure you see him, because it looks like he's turning into us.' I couldn't see around his seat and then the next thing I know, literally three seconds later, we go by canopy-to-canopy - so close that I don't know how our tails didn't hit each other. I just remember looking up and I could see everything in their cockpit, and I could see the other instructor looking at me with wide eyes, probably with me looking back with even wider eyes. So I took a deep breath with my heart seeming like it was going to beat out of my throat, keyed the mic and tried to sound cool, but really was like 'wow.'"
Having put his extensive training and knowledge to work in Operations Southern Watch, Iraqi Freedom, New Dawn and Unified Protector, Schaare has more than 700 combat flying hours, but one mission will forever stick out in his mind.
"I had just come back from one part of the country on the extreme opposite end of where I wound up going," he said. "I was just going to go into this one small area near the base, burn down a little bit of gas, land and be done with the mission. It was a long sortie already - probably six or seven-hours long - but there were 'troops in contact' a pretty decent distance away. I knew that gas was going to be tight to get there, so I told my wingman to start working the tanker and tell them where to meet us, while I talked to agencies that were feeding me info from the Army guys."
Schaare then learned that there had been casualties suffered on both sides of the confrontation, strengthening his resolve in helping his fellow service men.
"I just remember when I saw what I was about to bomb, it appeared to be in the middle of a downtown area - I mean it was that built up, there were houses everywhere," Schaare said. "That's when I had to fall back on my training and remember 'this is what they tell me is the best bomb to drop right now, this is how to drop it and if everything works as planned, then everything's going to work out.' If the bomb had a guidance failure or a fin lockout or anything like that it's going to get real ugly, but I didn't hesitate. I worked with those guys to surgically remove the structure in question, and the only collateral damage was some blown out windows from the pressure, but other than that everything worked as advertised."
For the last 13 years, Schaare has been at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., serving the last 10 as a "Shooter," making Schaare the most tenured "Wild Weasel" in the squadron.
"I've been a Wild Weasel since we started flying the Block 50s," Schaare said. "Of my 4,600 hours in the F-16, more than 3,600 hours are in the Block 50 time. I've been very lucky. Probably the number one thing I tell the young guys in the squadron is that the most important thing for them to do is to learn the jet, and you can only do that by studying and flying."
Having Schaare at the 55th has been invaluable, said Lt. Col. Jared Johnson, 55th EFS director of operations.
"We're proud to call him a Shooter, because he's a phenomenal resource that really knows the jet inside and out," said Johnson. "The number of hours he has in fighter aircraft, you're talking something on the order of 5,000 missions that he's flown and executed, both combat and training. Scary probably has more hours with his finger on the pickle button dropping bombs then some guys in our squadron have hours total. Our estimate is that he has more F-16 Block 50 time than any other human alive."
To get to the amount of flying hours Schaare has amassed takes a true team effort - from the various support agencies in an operations support squadron, to the many maintenance and medical personnel - but one 'unit' stands above the rest, Schaare said.
"My family has truly been my biggest support system," Schaare said. "I've been all over the world to places that were really cool and places that were not so cool. It stinks that they couldn't experience it with me, and I've missed a lot of their growing up. I've tried to be the 'cool' dad and obviously that got me in trouble many times when my wife would say, 'Hey I can't be the disciplinarian all the time so you got to get in there too.' The fact that she put up with me, I can't thank her enough. I can't imagine having done anything else for my career, and I have no regrets other than I wish I would've had the capability of spending more time with my family, but they understood and supported me."
With his flying days coming to a close, Schaare looks to the future while also reflecting on his past.
"Maybe I can't fly the jet anymore but I still have a wealth of knowledge that I can impart on the young guys, so what I would love to do is be a simulator instructor," he said. "It seems like yesterday that I was at Mountain Home and just started flying the Viper, and now here I am about to hang it up."
Schaare won't be climbing back into the cockpit, but he will forever remember his days in sun-split clouds.
"Some things I'll never forget," he said. "I'll always remember this one morning I was coming back from a mission in Libya and the sun was starting to come up in the east, Mt. Etna was erupting to the west, and we were flying right up the middle. I remember thinking to myself, 'What could be cooler than this right now? Who has seen this view?' It will be forever emblazoned in my mind. I don't have the words to eloquently say what I felt at that moment; how beautiful it was with all the shades of pink, orange, purple and black, and the thunderstorm clouds that were building up. It just took my breath away."