Glenwood grad’s naval career soars
NAVAL AIR STATION OCEANA, Va. It’s been a long time since Mark Hunter caught air as part of the Sunlight Ski Team.Since graduating from Glenwood Springs High School in 1978, Hunter has gone on to much greater heights as a Navy pilot, including serving in the 1991 war in Iraq and in the war in Afghanistan starting in late 2001.These days, he’s spending more time on the ground again, but his responsibilities continue to soar. On Aug. 2, Capt. Hunter was promoted to commanding officer of Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia.Previously the base’s executive officer, he’s now in charge of some 1,000 station personnel, and oversees a facility where a total of about 12,000 military men and women and civilians work each day.”You could kind of compare it to being a mayor of a small city,” Hunter said.It’s still larger than Glenwood Springs today, let alone when Hunter was growing up here.
Hunter continues to have fond memories of Glenwood, where his parents, George and Pat, still live. While he enjoys living and working on the coast of Virginia, he can’t help but compare it to his home as a youth.”It’s not bad. It’s a little hot and humid. I miss the mountains and I miss the skiing, but there’s a lot of stuff to do here, too,” he said.Hunter looks back fondly at not just skiing, but hiking, enjoying views of snow-covered Mount Sopris, tubing and rafting down area rivers, and catching rainbow trout with his dad.It also was in Glenwood Springs where he first got ideas about becoming a military pilot. The late Larry Israel, a retired Air Force colonel, lived in Glenwood Springs and taught part time at Colorado Mountain College, where George Hunter had been a professor. The Hunters and Israel became good friends.”He had a bunch of pictures hanging on his walls of jets and stuff,” Hunter recalled. “I said, ‘How do you get to do that?'”Israel’s advice was to study hard and work to get into the Air Force Academy. Hunter also had hoped to get in the academy as part of its golf team, but his handicap wasn’t low enough, his mother remembers.Instead, “He got an appointment to the Naval Academy. He said, ‘Yeah, I’ll go if I can fly,'” she said.
The academy made no such promises, but Hunter still managed to be selected for flight training.”I got to the same place where I wanted to be, which was flying tactical jets,” Hunter said.He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1982 and was designated a naval aviator in 1984. Over the years, he has racked up some 4,700 flight hours and more than 1,050 landings on aircraft carriers. His military service has taken him to almost 30 countries and he’s flown in 90 combat missions.Those included a number of missions from the aircraft carrier Midway into Iraq in the early days of the 1991 war. U.S. troops were not yet on the ground, and Hunter and other pilots saw some surface-to-air missiles and artillery fire from Iraqi troops.He was commander of a squadron that, before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, had already been scheduled for deployment eight days later. “When we deployed we headed right over to the Indian Ocean and flew strikes over Afghanistan for five months,” he said.
Hunter and his comrades were based at sea for 159 days before their ship finally pulled into port.He hasn’t participated in operational missions since Afghanistan but instead teaches young aviators to fly. Asked about his views about the current war in Iraq, he said his thoughts simply are with the American forces.”They are just doing a great job in the harshest conditions. I feel like we owe them our support and thanks. It’s a tough job and they’re doing great work,” he said.Hunter is married and has four children and two stepchildren. His sister, Kim, was able to travel from her home in Michigan this month to join their parents at the ceremony marking the change of command at Hunter’s station.”We had a whole week of family time. That was really awesome,” Pat Hunter said.After his many missions abroad, his mom is understandably happy to have him assigned stateside, and on the coast at that, even if it’s not back in the mountains of western Colorado.”If you have to be anywhere, I think Virginia Beach is a pretty nice place to be,” she said.