Lifestyle

Q&A with fighter pilot Kirk 'Rambo' Soroka

The wing operations officer talks call signs, close calls and finding your true calling.

CB_soroka

Feb. 9, 2012, 2:30 p.m.,
409 Squadron hangar at
4 Wing Cold Lake air force base (Photo: Jason Franson)

As a 24-year-old infantryman, Kirk Soroka was told he was too old to fly CF-18 fighter pilots. He pulled it off by sheer determination, although it took nine years. A veteran of Canada’s Kosovar and Libyan campaigns, he now serves in Alberta as wing operations officer at 4 Wing Cold Lake, Canada’s busiest fighter base. He spoke with Canadian Business senior writer Matt McClearn.

Date of birth: 05/27/64
Year he enlisted in the Army: 1983
Year he received his pilot’s wings: 1994
Year he flew his first combat mission, in Kosovo: 1999
Year he completed the fighter weapons instructor course (a.k.a. the “Top Gun” course): 2000
Flying hours logged: More than 3,100

Your call sign is intriguing. How did you get it?
When you complete flight training, all fighter pilots are given a call sign. If it’s not a play on the person’s name, it recognizes something about their personality or something they’ve done. There’s a tongue-in-cheek ceremony. They have you kneel down. They put a sword on your left and right shoulder and say: ‘You shall henceforth be known as Rambo.’ Sometimes the call sign doesn’t stick, but mine stuck like glue.

How is “Rambo” a reflection of your personality?
I spent 6 1/2 years in the regular infantry. Infantry soldiers have a fairly high level of discipline, they’re physically fit, they’re focused on mission success, they have no problem jumping out of helicopters, rappelling, or jumping out of airplanes. They’re intrigued by all the different weapon systems, equipment, knives and stuff. I’m not your typical air force officer, hence the name.

How did you become a pilot?
I was in Wainwright, Alta., in 1987. Two young soldiers and I were walking across a swamp during an exercise. It was about knee-deep most of the time—tepid water, mid-calf mud and degrading organic materials. Kind of smelly. Our job was to go and pick up an enemy platoon’s position and then drag the friendly company in and have them fight through. That was the mission.

All fast air jets were supposed to be the enemy. So behind us we heard this howl coming. We hit the deck, and when you’re carrying a 70-pound rucksack, that momentum pushes you deeper into the mud. I remember poking my head out of the water and seeing this F-18 making a left-hand bank turn. I could see the pilot—he was 200 feet off the ground, he had his grey helmet on, orange horse collar, dark green flight suit. As he left I thought, he’s calling us in right now, and we’re going to be legging it for the next three days from any [enemy] platoon that tries to capture us. We lay there for 15 minutes, and the whole time I was thinking: What’s the difference between me and that guy? He was going to be in Cold Lake in a few minutes drinking coffee, and I was still going to be in the swamp. I decided I was going to fly F-18s, right then and there.

I never imagined it would take nine years. But every day in the Air Force, we look for a longer-term goal. For me that was to be an F-18 pilot. Beyond that, I didn’t know what was going to happen. I never thought I’d be the wing operations officer of the largest fighter base in Canada, it just happened. I’ve been in combat operations twice now, Kosovo and Libya. The organization recognized I had some skill sets and strengths that were useful, and kept putting me in challenging positions.

What’s the worst physical stress you’re subjected to in that cockpit?
There’s two. One is the temperatures, but the hardest point is the “g.” You know how g works, right?

Well, I’m just now getting acquainted with G-force. I’ve read that at 6 g a pilot feels like he weighs 1,000 pounds.
Well, your head weighs about 20 pounds. So at 7 g it weighs 140 pounds, and the upper half of your body weighs 700 pounds. The only thing preventing you from sliding into where your feet are is your lower back and core strength. You cannot lift your arms above about 4 g. Some guys do this for three months and are unsuccessful. Other guys, like me, can get out to the 20-year mark. But beyond that it’s pretty tough. It wrecks your neck and your lower back.

What was the most challenging aspect of being a pilot?
The hardest transition for most fighter pilots is to go from just flying an airplane to employing an airplane. That’s where we begin to use sensors and weapons. The first F-18 we ever lost, the guy was flying in cloud, doing an intercept, and he was focusing on his radar. And he ended up in a nose-down descending turn and before he realized what was going on, he hit the ground and was killed. The only way they figured out what happened was that the same thing happened two days later, only the guy survived by pulling 10 g to recover. When I’m fighting to gain air superiority with two sections of fighters—eight airplanes—it’s like a supersonic chess game during a rock concert. There’s so much information coming in. One bad radio call, one bit of misinformation can dump everything you’ve built up as far as a picture of what’s going on.

When things are happening that quickly, how do you make decisions?
When we’re fighting, we have ranges we fly against. It’s like a checklist. We want to have certain things done by certain times. That’s the ideal . . . if something is different than the standard or the norm, I have to modify my next step. We’re constantly adjusting to get to the ideal. If we focus on anything too long, we generally are unsuccessful. It’s about being able to focus and prioritize information.

Kosovo was the first time you bombed live targets. What was that like?
When we’re getting ready to go, tension is high. You’re doing your checks, you’re just being disciplined and keeping the emotion out. You feel like your mouth is full of cotton. You’re worried because you don’t know what to expect. And as you’re watching the clock tick down, the cotton’s getting thicker.

Flying over Macedonia, all the urban lighting was on. It was like flying over Edmonton. But as soon as we got to the Kosovo border where the entire Serbian army was dug in, it was black. The only things we saw were houses burning. You could see tracers going between the houses in these small villages. You could see the flashes of other targets being struck.

Each mission, we had different targets. I did a lot of airfields in Kosovo and Serbia, and they’re always among the heaviest defended. One airfield I went against was a MIG-29 base up near Belgrade. At one point we were inside three surface-to-air missile rings. We would try to stay above the triple-A [anti-aircraft artillery], but the SAMs could always get us. It makes the hair stand up on the back of your head when you’re doing that. You’re getting tickles as they’re looking at you, and there’s all these triple-As going off under you. I remember painting a target, lining up, dropping the weapons, and then cracking my wings as I’m flying away with all the triple-A underneath us. It was just like World War Two, watching the bombs coming, going down toward the target area. It was a surreal experience.

What was the most difficult aspect of your experience in Kosovo?
The airplane we flew then is not the airplane we fly today. It was much less advanced. So were the tactics. The first two guys would wake the enemy up and get them shooting. The last two guys would have to go through that to bomb the target. Some guys in the rear would get pretty excited and would wind up flying above other jets while dropping their bombs, or flying through the formation. There were some close calls.

When were you deployed to Libya last year, what did you do?
I got told by the wing commander as I came off leave that I had to get on an airplane later that day to go to Italy to set up a Crisis Action Branch. It’s a specialized team meant to develop an air campaign plan to Italy. I arrived around the middle of April, and came back the first half of June. We wrote the air campaign plan during that period. I focused on two lines of operation: how to defeat the enemy economically and how to defeat him operationally.

I’m not sure I can go into too much detail. But the short story is, I ended up living in a hotel. The days were 12-14 hours the whole time I was there. It was a blur.

Kosovo was at the level of the worst-case scenarios for us. Libya could easily have been similar if the Libyan air force had stood their ground. Thankfully they didn’t.

What did you learn in helping plan the Libyan air campaign?
Every day you’re at work, you’re learning techniques and gaining expertise that one day will be called upon in a manner you do not expect. I drew on stuff that went all the way back to my infantry days. I knew how they were fighting on the ground, I could relate to what the problems were, and I could interact with peers across the services and understand what they were saying. Some of my Air Force peers didn’t fully understand.

Your role appears to have become more administrative lately. How often do you get to fly?
I went from about 180 hours a year down to about 70 now. I try to get out once a week.

You OK with that?
No! Of course I’m not OK with it! I hate it! But the wing commander, he’s busier than I am. He hasn’t flown in six months.

Are you going to stick around long enough to fly the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter?
I probably won’t get to fly those airplanes, because I’m getting close to retirement. I need to think about what I’m going to do next. But I’ll fly until they pry the stick from my cold dead fingers. I’ve got a couple of years left in me, for sure.