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Pilot reaches 1,000th combat hour milestone

Lt. Col. Craig Andrle, 79th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron commander, speaks to squadron members after flying his 1,000th combat hour March 20, 2017 at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. There are only four F-16 Fighting Falcon pilots, lieutenant colonel and below, currently serving in the Air Force who have reached 1,000 combat hours. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Katherine Spessa)

Lt. Col. Craig Andrle, 79th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron commander, speaks to squadron members after flying his 1,000th combat hour March 20, 2017 at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. There are only four F-16 Fighting Falcon pilots, lieutenant colonel and below, currently serving in the Air Force who have reached 1,000 combat hours. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Katherine Spessa)

Lt. Col. Craig Andrle, 79th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron commander, climbs down from an F-16 Fighting Falcon as members of the 79th EFS wait to congratulate him on flying his 1,000th combat hour March 20, 2017 at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. Andrle reached the milestone while supporting the wing’s counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Katherine Spessa)

Lt. Col. Craig Andrle, 79th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron commander, climbs down from an F-16 Fighting Falcon as members of the 79th EFS wait to congratulate him on flying his 1,000th combat hour March 20, 2017 at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. Andrle reached the milestone while supporting the wing’s counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Katherine Spessa)

Lt. Col. Craig Andrle, 79th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron commander, taxis after a combat sortie March 20, 2017 at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. The 79th EFS provides counterterrorism to support a successful train, advise, assist mission in Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Katherine Spessa)

Lt. Col. Craig Andrle, 79th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron commander, taxis after a combat sortie March 20, 2017 at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. The 79th EFS provides counterterrorism to support a successful train, advise, assist mission in Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Katherine Spessa)

Staff Sgt. Ryan Best, 455th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron weapons load crew member, and Lt. Col. Craig Andrle, 79th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron commander, show tiger claws, representing the fighter squadron’s mascot, after a combat sortie March 20, 2017 at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. Andrle reached a milestone 1,000 combat hours while supporting the wing’s counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Katherine Spessa)

Staff Sgt. Ryan Best, 455th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron weapons load crew member, and Lt. Col. Craig Andrle, 79th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron commander, show tiger claws, representing the fighter squadron’s mascot, after a combat sortie March 20, 2017 at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. Andrle reached a milestone 1,000 combat hours while supporting the wing’s counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Katherine Spessa)

Lt. Col. Craig Andrle, 79th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron commander, taxis after a combat sortie March 20, 2017 at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. During four deployments, Andrle has flown more than 1,000 combat hours. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Katherine Spessa)

Lt. Col. Craig Andrle, 79th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron commander, taxis after a combat sortie March 20, 2017 at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. During four deployments, Andrle has flown more than 1,000 combat hours. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Katherine Spessa)

Lt. Col. Craig Andrle, 79th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron commander, lands after flying a combat sortie March 20, 2017 at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. During the sortie, Andrle reached a milestone 1,000 combat hours. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Katherine Spessa)

Lt. Col. Craig Andrle, 79th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron commander, lands after flying a combat sortie March 20, 2017 at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. During the sortie, Andrle reached a milestone 1,000 combat hours. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Katherine Spessa)

BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan -- The 79th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron commander reached a milestone – 1,000 combat hours in an F-16 Fighting Falcon – after flying a sortie March 20. 

Lt. Col. Craig Andrle joined an elite group, one of four F-16 pilots, lieutenant colonel and below, currently serving in the U.S. Air Force who have flown 1,000 combat hours in an F-16.

Andrle has deployed four times during his 17 years in the Air Force, including twice at Balad Air Base, Iraq; once at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan; and his current deployment as the 79th EFS commander here. 

F-16s in Afghanistan provide close air support for ground troops and target insurgent groups throughout the country. The counterterrorism effort supports a successful train, advise, assist mission in the theater.

“That’s a lot of time spent deployed to get to that,” said Andrle. “To me, it is a milestone. It’s something that I’ve spent my career practicing and preparing to do – take the F-16 to war. To do that for 1,000 hours is pretty special.”

He is the only fighter pilot at Bagram Airfield to have done so.

“It’s an extremely rare honor,” said Col. Jason Bailey, 455th Expeditionary Operations Group commander and fellow F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot. “I myself, have only reached just under 600 hours, and he has nearly double that.”

According to Air Force Personnel Center officials, Andrle has the third highest number of hours and is projected to surpass the number one pilot before the end of the deployment.

To mark the occasion, members of the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing came to offer congratulations as Andrle returned from the sortie.

“Colonel Andrle a truly superb commander who is leading from the front, doing the mission and knocking it out to the tune of 1,000 hours,” said Bailey.

As Andrle climbed down from the cockpit of this F-16, well-wishers lined up to shake his hand. 

“It’s a team sport. From the maintainers out on the jet to intel in the squadron to the folks prepping our helmets and life-support gear, I appreciate all the work that goes into that,” Andrle said. “I think having the chance to lead and command in combat, especially with the group of folks I have in the Tigers, has been the pinnacle of my career.”

After 17 years, four deployments and 1,000 combat hours, Andrle has a lot to pass on to the next generation of fighter pilots, including those he is currently commanding. 

His advice, “It’s a deadly serious business. It doesn’t matter if it’s your first combat hour or your 1,000th combat hour, somebody on the ground needs you today, and you need to be ready to do your job.”

The 79th EFS is currently deployed from Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, as the only fighter squadron in Afghanistan.

“The capability to bring bombs to bear to eliminate the enemy on the ground, provide that close, coordinated support for our team members on the ground – that’s what our Vipers here do. That’s what the 79th EFS Tigers are doing, and they’re doing so extremely well,” said Bailey.