DAEGU ― The "Top Gun," mainly thanks to the film of the same name, has mistakenly been seen as the highest honor for Korean Air Force pilots.
But it is time to let people know that there is a more prestigious and emblematic award, the "Best Pilot of the Year," given to an aviator who collectively scores the best record in more than 20 duties including flying hours, operation participation and physical fitness in the span of one year. The Top Gun winner is based on marksmanship in an annual contest.
"The award evaluates overall performance for one year, so pilots are required to do a lot of things ― fly, take part in operations and load live ordnance as many times as possible ― in order to take the honor," said award winner Major Park Kun-hyoung of the 110th Fighter Squadron at the 11th Fighter Wing ― the home to F-15K Slam Eagles.
"It is significant in that the winner is picked based on the pilot's year-long performance."
Another Air Force officer said: "For the Air Force, the best pilot of the year is more symbolic because the award means a versatile pilot ― it's not just about marksmanship."
Park added that he is fine about the award's little fame because everybody has a different idea and marksmanship is also important to pilots.
The 37-year-old Daejeon native, who earned his wings in 2001 and began his career flying F-5s, said support from his superiors contributed to the selection.
"Even though I want to undertake many duties, I cannot participate in operations without permission from senior officers including the commander of the 11th Fighter Wing," he said.
"Many operation participations mean they trusted me. Otherwise, I could not have done so. I appreciate that."
Park, who has flown more than 2,000 hours, is one of less than 20 Korean Air Force pilots with 1,000 flying hours in the F-15K under their belts and has some impressive memories while in flight.
"When loaded F-15Ks were scrambled due to North Korea's shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010, it was my first time to participate in a warfare-like situation, which was most memorable yet nervous," Park said.
He also said that the Max Thunder exercise, which fosters bilateral aerial training between the Korean and U.S. Air Forces, and the fly-by to celebrate Armed Forces Day were fun to remember.
Park said that seasoned pilots usually suffer some risky moments while in flight, although fortunately, he has never had any, but he is ready to fly tonight.
"I am set to serve the country when a national crisis occurs and want to play a key role in overcoming it," he said.