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A “Legend” retires with over 10,000 flying hours

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Ashley Crist
  • 71st Flying Training Wing Public Affairs

VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. – There are tales told of an instructor pilot in the 71st Flying Training Wing who can teach any student. There are myths about an instructor who patiently trains world-class pilots while growing world-class leaders. An instructor who has more experience in the cockpit of training aircraft than most pilots earn in their entire careers. They call him “Legend.” 

Lt. Col. Bob Volpe, call sign “Legend,” has flown more than 10,000 hours, a number very few Air Force pilots reach. 

An instructor pilot with the 5th Flying Training Squadron at Vance, Volpe began his pilot career in 1989 and over the last 35 years he has flown the T-38C Talon, C-130 Hercules, T-37 Tweet, and the T-6A Texan II for a total of 7,000 sorties and 10,200 flight hours.

“We talk about how it takes 10,000 repetitions for a person to become an expert,” said Lt. Col. Christina Hopper, the 5th Flying Training Squadron commander. “Ten thousand hours means Bob is an expert in Air Force aviation and instruction, He knew the names of every student he flew with; not just their names, but their stories,” she said.

“Ten thousand hours means 10,000 stories, 10,000 lives touched, 10,000 people who carry a piece of his wisdom and expertise with them every day,” said Hopper. “That’s 10,000 people who will exponentially take what he taught them and transmit it to the world. That’s pretty powerful!”

The road to 10,000

“In my younger years, I flew as much as I could balancing it with my family life,” said Volpe. “Age takes its toll, so I slowed down a little bit as I turned 50. But now here in my last year, I somehow managed to figure out how to pick it back up again. I knew that 10,000 would happen, but I’m not honestly chasing numbers.”

Between his love of teaching and his skill in the aircraft, Volpe taught many student pilots in his 25 years at Vance. He logged 5,200 flying hours in the T-6 alone. 

“We get new students in the T-6 every five months and I have great memories from every class. Not just one but thousands,” said Volpe.

Volpe flew his 10,000th flight hour on Oct. 25, 2023. Very few pilots in the Air Force hit similar milestones. Col. Joel Pauls, the 71st Operations Group commander, recognized the impact and distinctive importance of this triumph. “It’s unheard of in this day and age,” said Pauls. “To put it into context, you would expect a rated officer who serves for 20-plus years to have 3,000 to 4,000 flight hours by the time they retire. When you see someone with 5,000 hours, it really gets your attention.”

Capt. Kailtyn Cook, an 8th Flying Training Squadron instructor pilot and former student of Volpe’s, flew alongside him for the 10,000th hour and realized the strength and patience this event requires. 

“This is not 10,000 hours at cruise on autopilot,” said Cook. “He has more than 5,000 times put his gear on, buckled into the plane, flew a sortie, and debriefed.”

Training pilots & growing leaders

While the numbers draw people’s attention, they are overshadowed by the influence Volpe had on the pilots who graduated, according to the leaders who counted on him to get students struggling with a formidable flying training curriculum across the finish line. 

“Lt. Col. Volpe’s accomplishments are truly unique, and I would be surprised if anyone ever comes close to matching what he has done,” said Pauls. 

“And while the tangible accomplishments [of flying over 10,000 hours] get a lot of attention, it’s the impact he has on the people around him that is truly remarkable,” said Pauls. “He’s the instructor that students want to fly with and the instructor that commanders want flying with students who struggle. He’s the mentor other instructors seek out when they have questions.

“Lt. Col. Volpe’s dedication to the students, his empathy for them and understanding of what they’re going through is unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” said Pauls. “He is a consummate professional, highly disciplined, hardworking and incredibly skilled. I see these attributes in all phases of his life, whether it’s as an officer, military aviator, husband, father, grandfather or friend.”

The “Legend” retired from active duty April 12, 2024.