When talking about fighter pilots, 40s to early 50s is usually considered really old. Just like pro athletes, there seems to be a shelf-life for what the body can endure when it comes to this kind of work. Flying high-performance tactical jets looks like an incredibly fun and mentally challenging occupation, but in the cockpit, it is a physically brutal and painful task that can press human physiology to the brink. With this in mind, it's not inaccurate to say, that generally speaking, flying fighters is a young person's game. But there are exceptions to this rule, and one of them is an extreme outlier to say the least—Royal Australian Air Force Squadron Leader Phillip Frawley.
Frawley has held the Guinness World Record for the oldest active fighter pilot for years now—the previous holder was a 60-year-old Israeli F-16 pilot. Frawley is now 66 years of age, and his record has become more impressive with each passing year.
A grandfather of four and an avid surfer who has served with the RAAF for just shy of 50 years, Frawley started his career as an instrument fitter's apprentice in the RAAF back 1969. In 1974 he entered pilot training. After getting his wings he failed to get a fighter slot, but went on to fly C-130 Hercules transports. Still, Frawley dreamed of fast jets. In a recent piece published by the RAAF, Frawley states:
“Flew the Hercules for five years, thoroughly enjoyed that but always wanted to be a fighter pilot. So I reapplied and came back to Williamtown after I was successful, second time around.
Then I served five years on Mirages and spent another two and a half years at Point Cook as an instructor, then back to Williamtown, this time instructing on Macchi’s and then I was onto F/A-18s. Flew F/A-18s for another five years.”
With a true talent for training other fast jet pilots, he went on to command RAAF's 76 Squadron at RAAF Base Willamtown and served a stint in Saudi Arabia as well. By 2002 he returned to 76 Squadron as a reservist and has spent the last 16 years flying Hawk 127 lead-in fighter trainers with the unit. The squadron not only trains future RAAF fighter pilots, but it also provides an aggressor capacity for Australian Naval ships and Hornet and Super Hornet crews. It also helps forward air controllers master their deadly art.
In total, Frawley has trained 499 pilots and has amassed a whopping 10,000 hours of flying time. That is a gargantuan amount for a military pilot, and especially for one that spent most of that time in tactical jets.
In a 2014 interview for Manspace, the veteran fighter pilot noted:
“It’s definitely a unique occupation but not for me. I’ve been doing it for 40-odd years and I consider it a bit of an addiction because I can’t get enough. It’s going to be a sad day when I get kicked out of the gate for the last time.
The older I get, the more one-eyed I become about what I do. I am just so wrapped up in flying. If I go on leave I can’t wait to get back. It never really feels like I’m at work.
Flying is definitely my outlet. It’s hard work but it’s also very satisfying. There are a lot of checks to do in the cockpit before and during flying. I guess I’d compare it to the likes of a carpenter confronted by a really hard job. He reaps the benefits in completing the task to a high standard. For me also, it’s about instructing the kids. I get the satisfaction out of seeing them later in life when they are fully blown Hornet pilots."
For a guy that has been around the RAAF for the majority of its existence, he has seen a lot change, but it's the little things that can be most challenging to adapt to:
“For me, within the area of fighter flying, the tactics have evolved over many, many years as the platforms have become more and more complex and more capable... For me as an instructor, it takes a bit more practice to deal with that digital stuff."
If you were a student struggling to wrap your brain around all the intricacies of flying and fighting in a tactical jet, imagine how great it would be to have this guy in the backseat giving you pointers? When it comes to flying fighters, nothing counts more than experience in the cockpit.
Age is such a relative thing really. I know 65-year-olds that seem younger than some 35-year-olds. But society seems to value youth above all else these days when historically it has been the other way around. Master fighter pilot builder Phillip Frawley proves that age doesn't need to stop you from doing something you love, and wisdom can be a far more precious commodity than youth.
You can read more about this 66-year-old fighter pilot over at his blog, which has some awesome posts, including one on flying the Hawk 127 and another on the time Frawley accidentally went into pressure-suit territory in a Mirage fighter. You can also go fly with him! In his spare time, aside from surfing and making speaking appearances, he puts on air shows and takes people on adventure flights in an L39 and does civilian flight instruction.
“I still get a massive buzz from flying. You just get so good at it after a while that it becomes second nature, like driving a car. I’ll continue to fly as long as it’s fun because if it isn’t fun, what’s the point?”
Enjoy your retirement from flying sir, and enjoy the flying!
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com