Hanging up his wings

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Aaron Jelinek, formerly of Clarkston, poses for a photo Thursday at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona with his wife Terri and their children Carter and Caroline in front of the F-35 fighter he flew on his last mission. Jelinek, 41, is retiring in September after nearly two decades of service.

Growing up in Clarkston during the 1990s, Aaron Jelinek literally set the sky as his limit.

On Thursday, the lieutenant colonel with the U.S. Air Force hung up his wings, having blown away all of his childhood aspirations. And he was able to take his final flight, called a “fini-flight” in Air Force jargon, with some of the best friends he made along the way.

“I think it exceeds every expectation of what I even dreamt it could be,” Jelinek said via telephone from the Phoenix, Ariz., area, where he and his family have been stationed for the last seven years. “God has blessed our lives, and to be able to have your number of takeoffs equal your number of landings as a fighter pilot is a successful career.”

Officially, Jelinek has logged 2,585 total flight hours, including 232 combat hours, 1,941 hours in the F-16 fighter jet and 615 hours in the top-of-the-line F-35 stealth fighter. For Thursday’s final mission, he grabbed Lt. Col. Kristin Hubbard, who flew alongside Jelinek when he served on the Air Force Thunderbirds flight demonstration team; her husband and 62nd Fighter Squadron Commander Lt. Col. Chris Hubbard; and his brother-in-law, retired Col. Matthew Renbarger.

And because there is always a mission to complete, even on a largely symbolic flight, two flight students joined their formation.

“I’m sure everybody looks back on their careers and they remember the deployments, they remember the flying and everything like that,” Jelinek said. “But what really stays behind with you is the relationships and the people that you’ve met along the way.”

The temperature on the Luke Air Force Base tarmac was 117 when he landed and taxied up to a throng of about 150 well-wishers Thursday. Thankfully, his children Carter, 7, and Caroline, 5, and their cousins were there, armed with the traditional water-charged fire extinguishers to give Jelinek a celebratory dousing. He also took a little bath in a nice bottle of bubbly.

“Always a bottle of Champagne,” he said. “Because fighter pilots don’t cry, so they have to have an excuse with an emotional event like that. Champagne in the eyes always works pretty good.”

Jelinek said he could have risen further in the ranks, but it would have required even more sacrifices. And since he and wife, Terri, have young children to raise and a burgeoning real estate business to build, they decided to take advantage of the stability offered by his various assignments at Luke.

“The next step would have been a full bird colonel, but for us to take that assignment, we’d have to move a few more times,” he said. “So we were given the opportunity to continue to fly aircraft and instruct students here at Luke and remain here as a family. So that’s what we chose to do.”

Jelinek still enjoyed a steady rise through the ranks and a variety of jobs and assignments since he finished his stint with the Thunderbirds about nine years ago. That period started with a year-and-a-half job as a defense legislative fellow on Capitol Hill for former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska. They moved back to the Phoenix area when Carter was about 5 months old so Jelinek could instruct F-16 pilots as the operations officer for the 21st Fighter Squadron.

When the base began replacing the F-16s with the F-35s, he learned how to fly the $80 million jets at a four-month course in Florida so he could be the operations officer for the first F-35 squadron at Luke. That was followed by a command position for the 56th Operational Support Squadron, with 220 airmen who were under his command learning seven different Air Force career fields. Finally, he spent a couple of years as the director of staff for the fighter wing commander at Luke, then a year and a half as the deputy commander of the mission support group.

“It’s just been a wild ride,” he said. “You never know what God has in store, and what’s going to come your way. And it’s just been amazing, from flying the F-16 to getting to fly with the Thunderbirds and have an incredible team there, then to transition into the premier fifth-generation fighter in the F-35, to be in that program when it was in its infancy, and to see where it’s at now, has just been an awesome, awesome opportunity.”

But things just needed to slow down because, ultimately, life tends to happen at the pace of a fighter jet.

“It goes fast,” Jelinek said. “People ask me if I’ll miss it. And I tell them that I’ll miss it every single day. But there comes a time where you have to hang it up, and this was just perfect for us. We were able to spend our last seven years in one assignment, which is somewhat unheard of if you’re on active duty in the Air Force, and really just set down roots here for the kids. Being a family, it’s just a huge priority for us to have them going to one school and not move every two years. It’s a blessing.”

Mills may be contacted at jmills@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2266.