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Hill commander delights in his hotshot job

In the quiet of a winter night, he marveled at the snow-covered Wasatch Mountains, the city lights below and thought, "I can't believe I get paid to do this."

Seconds later, Scott Zobrist was on the ground and getting out of an F-16, having returned from a mission at the Utah Test and Training Range.

That was a few years back and now Zobrist is Col. Zobrist, commander of the Air Force's largest active duty F-16 wing at Hill Air Force Base, encompassing three fighter squadrons, more than 70 F-16s and the Utah Test and Training Range Squadron.

Zobrist's partnership with the F-16 has had him patrolling the skies in the aftermath of 9/11, lending air support during the 2002 Winter Olympics, and commanding the first NATO combat mission in Bosnia as part of Operation Deliberate Force. He has more than 2,000 hours in the cockpit of an F-16 and has led combat missions in Iraq. He also served in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Piloting an F-16 is a hot-shot job, he concedes, one that few get to do.

"I think sometimes you do forget. I am sure NASCAR drivers and Formula 1 drivers forget how cool their job is. I think teachers forget until a time 10 years later when a student they had walks up and thanks them for the special impact they made."

A small-town boy from southern Illinois, Zobrist has had a stellar career in the Air Force, streaking through promotions, multiple missions, training assignments and varied commands.

His resume of education, assignments, combat missions, medals and awards could reflect a serious man, rigidly proper, an exacting taskmaster intolerant of mistakes.

But Zobrist is not that man.

Affable, approachable and unassuming, he sees mistakes as an opportunity for learning.

"I make mistakes on a daily basis when I fly," he said, stressing it is important for all 2,500 members of the wing to not skirt the truth, short the system, or cut corners because lives depend on honesty.

"Integrity is the foundation of everything," he said. "It's not just a buzz word. Service before self are words you live and die by."

Zobrist, whose most recent assignment was in Japan, leads the wing at a time when deployment has become a routine thing and combat missions come with startling frequency. The first time out is a hard experience to explain, he said.

"You prepare, you feel so ready, but you never know until the first time you do it. You become inward looking and ask yourself, 'Do I got it? Am I going to turn tail and run?' "

He said it is a question pilots often ask themselves before their first combat mission.

"They told me I had it," he said, emphasizing the word. "And the majority of pilots do exceed their expectations."

Having a conversation with Zobrist is to invite hundreds if not thousands of others into the room as his opinion, observations and insight unfolds.

Zobrist, you see, doesn't talk about himself as one man, but instead prefers to talk about the collective success of a bunch of parts that come together to form the "whole" of the Air Force operation. His role as commander of the 388th and as the man in charge of operational oversight for the 419th Reserve came in June and with it the responsibility to lead, to teach.

"I've had a great career but it is really a reflection of the people who helped me along the way, who taught me. It's the mirror of the Air Force — the airmen who are doing the nation's business on a day-to-day basis."

The pilot, he says, admittedly gets the attention.

"We're the most visible … the loud thing screaming overhead is what is going to catch the attention of people, the press," he said. "But the public doesn't see the thousands of hours that go into putting that jet in the sky. The people on the flight line, the maintainers, the people in the backshop — they are the ones that make it happen, enable it to happen on a daily basis."

Occasionally, pilots will take one of those on-the-ground airmen up in the jet, Zobrist said, and it becomes an eye-opening experience for both people.

"You get to see the thrill for them and it reminds you that you do really have a cool job, an exciting job."

Conversely, the passenger finds out how physically taxing and demanding it is to be in the air in an F-16.

"They'll get off and say, 'Sir, no disrespect but I don't want to change jobs.' We tell them the same thing."

e-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com