Then, U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. John Marks in an A-10 Thunderbolt II in 1991 next to, now, Lt. Col. Marks in the cockpit of an A-10 at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., Nov. 14, 2016. Marks reached 6,000 hours in an A-10 after flying for nearly three decades. | Courtesy photo provided by Lt. Col. Marks
Lt. Col. John Marks, a pilot with the 303rd Fighter Squadron, logged his 6,000th hour in the A-10 Thunderbolt II at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, Nov. 14, 2016.
Nearly three decades of flying and 11 combat deployments later, Marks has achieved a milestone that equates to 250 days in the cockpit, which most fighter pilots will never reach and puts him among the highest time fighter pilots in the U.S. Air Force.
Ever since the end of the Cold War Era when Marks began his Air Force career, the mission in the A-10 has remained the same— protect the ground forces.
"Six thousand hours is about 3,500 sorties with a takeoff and landing, often in lousy weather and inhospitable terrain," said Col. Jim Macaulay, the 442d Operations Group commander. "It's solving the tactical problem on the ground hundreds of times and getting it right every time, keeping the friendlies safe. This includes being targeted and engaged hundreds of times by enemy fire."
He also said it's a testament to Marks' skill that he's never had to eject, and they both praise and respect the 442d Maintenance Squadron for keeping the planes mission ready.
U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. John Marks poses with an A-10 Thunderbolt II at King Fahd Air Base, Saudi Arabia, during Desert Storm in February, 1991. Destroying and damaging more than 30 Iraqi tanks was one of Marks most memorable combat missions during Desert Storm. | Courtesy photo provided by Lt. Col. Marks
Marks' early sorties were low-altitude missions above a European battlefield, so different tactics have been used in more recent sorties that have focused on high-altitude missions above a middle-eastern battlefield.
"In the end, we can cover the ground forces with everything from a very low-altitude strafe pass only meters away from their position, to a long-range precision weapon delivered from outside threat ranges, and everything in between," said Marks.
Most combat sorties leave lasting impressions because the adrenaline rush makes it unforgettable, said Marks.
"The trio of missions I flew on February 25, 1991, with Eric Salomonson on which we destroyed or damaged 23 Iraqi tanks with oil fires raging all over Kuwait certainly stands out," he expressed. "The sky was black from oil fires and smoke and burning targets, lending to an almost apocalyptic feel."
"Recently, a mission I flew on our most recent trip to Afghanistan, relieving a ground force pinned down by Taliban on 3 sides and in danger of being surrounded, using our own weapons while also coordinating strikes by an AC-130 gunship, 2 flights of F-16s, Apaches, and AH-6 Little Birds, stands out as a mission I'm proud of," continued Marks about one of the most rewarding missions of his career, which earned him the President's Award for the Air Force Reserve Command in 2015.
Having more than 950 combat hours like Marks does is valuable for pilots in training because experience adds credibility, said Macaulay.
"I've watched him mentor young pilots in the briefing room then teach them in the air," said Macaulay. "Every sortie, he brings it strong, which infects our young pilots that seek to emulate him."
As an instructor pilot, Marks said he uses his firsthand experience to help describe situations that pilots learn during their book studies, such as, what it's really like to withstand enemy fire.
"I like to think we can show them a good work ethic as well," Marks added. "You always have to be up on the newest weapons, the newest threats, the newest systems. You can never sit still."
Marks plans on flying the A-10 until he is no longer capable, which gives him a few more years in the cockpit and the potential to reach 7,000 hours.
"I love being part of something that's bigger than any individual and doing something as a career that truly makes a difference - whatever you do in the Air Force, you're part of that effort," said Marks. "It's going to be up to you to carry on the great tradition we have in our relatively short history as an Air Force."