USAF instructor pilot with over 10,000 flying hours

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

As told by Senior Airman Ashley Crist, 71st Flying Training Wing Public Affairs, in the article A “Legend” retires with over 10,000 flying hours, 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 as an instructor pilot with the 71st Flying Training Wing, 5th Flying Training Squadron at Vance Air Force Base (AFB), Okla.

“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!”

“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.”

5,200 flying hours in the T-6

Lt. Col. Bob Volpe
Lt. Col. Robert Volpe (back seat), an instructor pilot in the 5th Flying Training Squadron, reached 10,000 flying hours in the U.S. Air Force on a training sortie with 2nd Lt. Nathan Zachary Oct. 25, 2023, at Vance Air Force Base, Okla.

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.

On Oct. 25, 2023 Volpe flew his 10,000th flight hour. Very few pilots in the USAF 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.

The instructor pilot that students want to fly with

“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.”
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.

USAF instructor pilot retires with over 10,000 flying hours
Lt. Col. Robert Volpe, an instructor pilot in the 5th Flying Training Squadron, (second from the left), walks away from a T-6A Texan II after flying a training sortie for his 10,000 flying hours with the U.S. Air Force Oct. 25, 2023, at Vance Air Force Base, Okla. Alongside him are the other pilots from the mission.

“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.

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

The 71st Flying Training Wing and the 5th Flying Training Squadron

The mission of the 71st Flying Training Wing is to deliver world-class US pilots, develop resilient Airmen and families, deploy ready Airmen and demonstrate our “Vance Proud” culture. Vance is responsible for training Air Force student pilots for worldwide deployment and Aerospace Expeditionary Force support. The wing reports to Air Education and Training Command.

The wing operates over 200 aircraft, flies more than 50,000 sorties annually and logs more than 74,000 flying hours in the T-1A Jayhawk, T-6A Texan II and T-38C Talon. More than 300 US Air Force student pilots graduate from pilot training at Vance each year.

The 5th Flying Training Squadron (5 FTS,) falls under the 340th Flying Training Group (340 FTG) for administrative control and the USAF 71st Flying Training Wing based at Vance Air Force Base, Oklahoma for operational control. It operates the T-1 Jayhawk, T-38B Talon, and T-6A Texan II aircraft conducting flight training in support of the 71st Operations Group.

USAF instructor pilot retires with over 10,000 flying hours
Lt. Col. Robert Volpe, an instructor pilot in the 5th Flying Training Squadron, celebrates reaching 10,000 flying hours in the Air Force Oct. 25, 2023, at Vance Air Force Base, Okla.

Photo credit: Senior Airman Ashley Crist and Airman 1st Class Christopher Ornelas Jr. / U.S. Air Force