April 11, 2019 (by Eric M. White) - Lt. Col. Barry Cupples, known around here as "JR," rolls back his flight suit sleeve, still dripping with water from the hose-down he received upon stepping through the aircrew door a few minutes earlier. His fellow 910th Operations Group members cheer as he reveals a black-inked C-130H Hercules aircraft tattoo on his forearm with "10,000 Hours" emblazoned above it.
Lt. Col. Barry "JR" Cupples, a navigator with the 757th AS, holds a 10,000 hours sign in the flight deck of a C-130H Hercules aircraft for a photo at the exact moment he completed his ten thousandth C-130 flight hour. Cupples was greeted by a crowd of his 757th wingmen after landing at Youngstown ARS. [USAF photo by Eric M. White]
In many ways, this flight was fairly normal—clear blue skies, a tactical route through the Blue Ridge Mountains of Tennessee, the headset-muffled rumble of the Hercules' four turboprop engines—but for Cupples, it was among the most significant he's flown. The navigator, assigned to the 757th Airlift Squadron here, flew his ten thousandth C-130 hour April 5, 2019.
Cupples enlisted in the Air Force Reserve while a senior in high school. He dreamed of becoming a pilot, following in the footsteps of his father, Lt. Col. Barry Cupples Sr., but first needed a college degree. So he enlisted as a loadmaster, responsible for loading and securing cargo and passengers before and during Air Force flights. After basic military training and loadmaster school at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas, Cupples was assigned to his father's home unit, the 328th Airlift Squadron, at Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station. That's where his aviation career began.
Cupples recalls his first flight out of Niagara.
"I remember, because it was a tactical training sortie, and I was flying with a Vietnam era pilot who was very aggressive," said Cupples. "And having just come from the school at Little Rock, I wasn't used to the flying. I remember being in the back thinking that was the first time I was going to get sick, because he was flying very aggressively."
During the next seven years, Cupples accrued approximately 2500 flight hours as a loadmaster on both C-130As and C-130Es, models much older than the C-130Hs flown out of Younstown Air Reserve Station. He was getting ready to graduate from college and planning his next career steps. His dream of becoming a pilot was thwarted when he learned his eyesight wasn't good enough and that it couldn't be waivered. Intent on serving his country from the C-130's flightdeck rather than its cargo area, Cupples changed courses slightly, deciding to become a navigator. Navigators are trained to safely route Air Force aircraft in a variety of conditions, including combat, using maps and charts, GPS, visual landmarks, radar and other tools.
Cupples went to Officer Training School in 1990 and earned his navigator wings in 1992. His career continued as a navigator at Niagara ARS until 2017. A mission change at Niagara saw their aircraft change from C-130s to KC-135s, which don't require navigators. The change left Cupples with a difficult decision. He could remain at Niagara for the few remaining years before his retirement, but he'd have to take a non-flying position. Alternatively, he could relocate to a C-130 unit. He found an Air Reserve Technician (Air Force Reservist that works a full-time civilian job connected to their reserve position) navigator spot here and jumped at the opportunity to pursue his love of aviation until the end of his career.
Lt. Col. Jeff Shaffer is the commander of the 910th Operations Group at Youngstown ARS and also serves as a C-130 navigator.
"There are milestones for aircrew members where you can change out the number above your Air Force Reserve patch, indicating the number of hours you've flown," said Shaffer. "The first is 1000, then 3000, 5000, 7500 and finally 10000."
As Cupples' career has progressed, his flying hours have dwindled some, so achieving 10 thousand hours wasn't really on his radar until last fall. He was averaging a few hundred flight hours a year, but a deployment gave him a significant jump.
"I got 200 hours on a deployment last fall and realized 10 thousand hours might be attainable," said Cupples.
As the number drew nearer, he realized he'd hit the milestone on a paratrooper drop sortie during the April Unit Training Assembly, when the majority of the 910th Airlift Wing's Reserve Citizen Airmen are at Youngstown ARS for training. The paratrooper requestor ended up cancelling, so the aircrew took the opportunity to fly some local training sorties, and Cupples was prepared. He printed a sign that said, "10,000 hours," for a midflight photo opportunity to commemorate the event. His fellow aircrew members on the ground, however, had bigger plans.
Upon landing, Cupples was greeted by a crowd of 910th personnel, several of whom had water-filled fire extinguishers to give him a celebratory hose-down after de-boarding the aircraft, a tradition usually reserved for the final flight of an aviator's career.
"It was far above what I expected," Cupples said, referring to the greeting party. "When I got back I did not expect the reception I got."
The greeting he received is an indicator of the respect he's earned as a master of his craft and that his wingmen know how rare it is to achieve what Cupples has done. The C-130 is a tactical aircraft, meaning its missions are usually short, one to three-hour local flights to deliver cargo or personnel. It's more common for aircrew members who fly strategic airlift aircraft like the C-5 Galaxy or C-17 Globemaster to achieve such a high number of flight hours, as their sorties can often have double digit lengths.
To put it into perspective, if you boarded an aircraft today, April 11, 2019, and started flying, it would take you until the morning of June 1, 2020 to gain 10 thousand hours of flight time. Only a handful of aircrew members from the 910th OG, three or four by some counts, have achieved the milestone.
Getting to such a high number is hard, if not impossible, only flying sorties from a home station. Cupples has gone on multiple deployments which helped bring his number up. He said that has been one of the biggest challenges in his Air Force career.
"For every hour, obviously, it's time away from the family," said Cupples.
Every flight hour also requires two to three hours of mission planning and debriefing, so the time commitment adds up quickly.
Cupples' coworkers and peers speak highly of his record and mission contributions.
"He's a hard worker, always on point, always on task," said Shaffer. "One of our best instructors, great at teaching the young kids."
As Cupples trains the next generation of aircrew members, hard work and a can do attitude are traits he hopes to pass along.
"There's a lot of times along the way people tell you that you can't do it," he said. "Anything's attainable if you work hard enough for it."
Cupples' flying time has given him a mental highlight reel of memorable sorties, but one stands out as particularly impactful. In 2003, he was scheduled to deliver fuel bladders into western Iraq. With little notice, his aircrew was asked to alter their mission. A service member was critically injured and needed emergency airlift out of country for urgent medical care. Getting their fellow service member to safety and seeing him survive his injuries as a result has had a lasting impact on Cupples.
Looking back on his career and the decisions that led him here, Cupples thinks of what it might have been like had he not decided to stick with flying when Niagara switched to KC-135s and said it's likely he would have retired regretting that he got so close to 10 thousand without actually hitting it.
"I'm just grateful to Youngstown for giving me the opportunity to come here and finish my career flying, cause otherwise, I may have ended up in a non-flying position," said Cupples. "It would have been bad for me to retire with 9600 hours, knowing that goal was attainable."
Mastery can be expected after 10 thousand hours of any activity, and Cupples' skill were on full display as the C-130 touched down at Youngstown ARS on April 5.
"I said we'd be back at 1300," said Cupples. "And we hit that right on the minute. It was just a beautiful day."