As a child living on the west side of Cincinnati, young Tom Finke just wanted to fly—a desire endlessly fed by his home’s location beneath the flight paths of the nearby international airport.
“I used to sit in my backyard and watch airplanes land,” he says.
Though his father’s death thwarted his plans to start flying at age 16, Finke has more than made up for it.
Finke, a 1980 information systems graduate, made a career out of flying, even though his vision was too poor for him to be a pilot in the U.S. Air Force. So he did the next best thing. He trained as a navigator, logging an impressive 2,600-plus hours of flight time in the Wild Weasel—the F-4G/E fighter jet. That includes 130 hours of combat time during the Gulf War, including on the first day of combat with Iraq on Jan. 17, 1991.
“I was in the sky south of Baghdad the first night of Desert Storm,” he says. “My mission was to take out surface-to-air missile systems and allow other airplanes to freely bomb their targets. We were successful. I shot two missile systems that night, two different radar sites on the ground.”
Now 44, Lt. Col. Finke spends more time behind a desk than in the cockpit. But as commander of the Air Force’s Warrior Preparation School at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, he still gets some seat time so he can keep up with emerging technologies in the planes. He hasn’t flown the Weasel since the Air Force retired it in 1996, but, he says, as long as he’s around planes, he’s happy.
Finke went to Korea for a year in 1996. He returned to Nellis as a flight commander in 1997 and two years later was named deputy commander of the school. Since February 2001, he’s been running the show. Finke is also one of the teachers who instructs hot young pilots not how to fly, but how to fly better.
“We get the top fliers who are preparing to move on to the next level of flying,” he says. “They’re the up-and-coming leaders of their squadrons, and they come to get a top-off program.”
The school—the academic arm of the 414th Combat Training Squadron—teaches aircrews, planners and intelligence specialists about air combat. It is the Air Force’s premier school for fighter pilots and their crews, teaching more than 600 students a year.
“We’re teaching fighter pilots things like electronic combat. We teach them what the enemy has to shoot them down with. It always changes.”
Two of the four courses, reserved for the best pilots from around the country, focus on coordinating air campaigns and the role of mission commander. One includes a red flag exercise—a two-week simulation where pilots practice flying in warlike conditions. Statistics show pilots who survive their first 10 missions will survive a war.
“We try to get pilots their first 10 missions. It’s not for every pilot,” he says.“The nice thing about this job is, I am required to fly twice a month just to make sure the training is working and to stay current in the airplanes.”
But, as it goes in the military, Finke’s time at the helm of the school will be up after another year. Then he’ll be reassigned, or could retire. His interests for future work include space-related systems or plane and equipment testing—the next best thing to actual flying.