Luck, timing and a little bit of skill

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Emily A. Kenney
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Jim Harkins, 11 years old at the time, soared through the air in a sailplane, wide-eyed and terrified. Surrounded by strange, loud noises, he kept a firm white-knuckle grip on the handles in front of him.

At that moment he knew, he was done with flying. All he could think was, "I'd rather be back home playing with the kids in the neighborhood."

Little did he know that would be far from his last ride.

A few years later, his father convinced him to go back and take another ride.

"I don't know why, but I agreed to go back," he said. "I went for another ride and it wasn't as scary--and that was it. My dad couldn't keep me away from the airport."

That was only the beginning of flying for Harkins. From then on, he hit flying milestones on the same day each year--his birthday.

"No kidding, every time I had a birthday I accomplished something," he said. "On my fourteenth birthday I soloed in gliders. I got my private glider license on my sixteenth birthday and my private power on my seventeenth birthday. When I was 18 I got my commercial instructor rating."

On May 23, 1978, in Long Island, New York, Jimmy Harkins became the youngest Certified Flight Instructor for gliders in the nation.

"I didn't have any money, so I figured I would go to a local college and try and be an aeronautical engineer or something, maybe work on airplanes," Harkins said. "One day at the glider port, some guy was asking what I was going to do after high school. He said his son was at the Air Force Academy. I just thought, 'I don't know where that is, or what that is.' Then he told me they had a free glider club and I was interested. At the time, I was only a junior in high school."

Harkins believes it was luck and great timing that brought him to the Academy just a year later.

"I was just so lucky because everything lined up perfectly," Harkins said. "First, I had good grades. Second, I found out about it in the beginning of junior year. And third, I managed to get all the paperwork done in time. Originally I was an alternate. They called me in May of my senior year and said, 'you're in for June.'"

Just one month later, James Harkins graduated high school and the next day went off to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

As he boarded the bus in Colorado Springs, he was both excited and terrified.

"It was ominous," Harkins said. "Everybody was quiet, because I guess they'd all been there."

The silence didn't last when the group of cadets stepped off the bus.

"The second we got off that bus [upperclassmen] started yelling and screaming," Harkins said. "The dude in front of me just turned around and got right back on the bus. But that was it for me--away I went."

At the Academy Soaring Program, Harkins instructed upperclassmen, and while only a freshmen flew a 192-mile round-trip cross country flight and exceeded 36,000 feet--a national record at the time. He graduated the Academy in 1982 and was presented the "Outstanding Cadet in Soaring" award.

After his time at the Academy, Harkins went on to Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, for pilot training and then Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona for his training in the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II.

Over the next five years, Harkins flew more than 1,467 hours in the A-10 over the skies of England and Germany. During that time, he also graduated the USAF Fighter Weapons School.

In 1989, Harkins was selected for the Royal Air Force Exchange Tour, where he learned to fly the SEPECAT Jaguar, an Anglo-French jet attack aircraft, in Scotland. He was assigned there as an instructor for the Conversion and Weapons Schools.

He became the first U.S. Air Force combat-ready Jaguar pilot and was slated to deploy on the second wave of the Gulf War. Due to the efficiency of that war, the second wave never happened. Harkins amassed 652 hours in the Jaguar before returning to the Academy.

He spent four more years at the Academy, where he was an instructor pilot for motor gliders, gliders and T-41s.

After his third "Return to Fly" board, Harkins was sent to Luke Air Force base, Arizona, where he learned to fly the F-16 Fighting Falcon.

Over the next 10 years, Harkins went overseas to Korea, where he flew F-16s, then to Egypt, where he served as a detachment commander and F-16 instructor pilot. After each of those tours, he returned to Luke as an F-16 instructor pilot. He finished his F-16 career with 1,507 hours. Harkins' final assignment was at the Headquarters Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico.

In 2007, after 25 years in the Air Force, Lt. Col. Harkins decided it was time to retire.

"I had 25 years and at that point and I was ready to move on," Harkins said.

However, he wasn't ready to give up flying.

With a little bit of luck and a whole lot of persistence, just 25 days after he officially retired, Harkins landed a position flying the QF-4 Drones at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico.

Eight years later, Harkins has continued breaking records when he became the first civilian pilot to fly 1,000 hours in the QF-4, with none of those hours flown while on active-duty.

"I never would have thought, as a kid, that I'd accomplish what I did. Let alone retire and then get to fly fighters as a civilian," said Harkins. "Eight years later I'm a QF-4 instructor, evaluator and I have my third thousand hour patch."

Harkins will likely be the last pilot to fly 1,000 hours in the QF-4, before the drones officially retire in 2016.

Regardless of his impeccable skill that he's displayed by breaking record after record, Harkins still believes he's simply been dealt a good hand.

"I once met an old fighter pilot who told me, 'The Air Force is like a game of poker. The more aces you have in your hand, the better off you are,'" Harkins said. "After all these years, I still believe my whole Air Force career was based on three things: luck, timing and a little bit of skill."