PENDLETON — Pendleton graduate Jeff Comrie is flying high after achieving a dream awarded to a select few — becoming a Marine Corps pilot.
“I always wanted to be a Marine, and I always wanted to fly,” he said. “I got super lucky I got to put them together.”
Comrie graduated from flight school last weekend, culminating years of work through college, officer candidate school, basic training and flight training.
“Now I’m off to North Carolina to learn how to technically employ V-22 Ospreys,” he said. “Those are the real deal.”
He’ll be trading the orange-and-white training crafts for models that “fly further, faster, higher and hit harder,” he said — the “pinnacle” of military flight technology in the world.
For Comrie, it’s been a long journey. While many members of the military enlist shortly after high school, Comrie got a master’s degree in mechanical engineering first. He graduated from college into the Great Recession and struggled to find work in his field, eventually moving back to Umatilla County.
After a while, his thoughts turned to a career he had considered in high school — the Marine Corps. He was worried he was too old to enlist, but was accepted a little more than three years ago and sent to officer school, then boot camp.
“That was harder for me than guys eight or nine years younger,” he said, adding that his body was “pretty much destroyed.”
He went on to start logging hundreds of hours of flight training. He said the hardest thing about flight school was the intensity.
“Two and a half years feels like eight years or six years of college,” he said.
The V-22 Osprey, which will be Comrie’s specialty, is a tiltrotor aircraft (picture a hybrid between an airplane and helicopter) that can take off vertically or horizontally while carrying troops and supplies. According to Wikipedia, each one costs the military $73 million.
When asked if it was nerve-racking to fly such an expensive piece of equipment, Comrie said the cost of military equipment is so large that often it’s hard to really wrap your head around the numbers. More concerning to most pilots, he said, is the idea of getting someone hurt or losing the trust of those they work with.
“You don’t want to screw up,” he said.
Comrie’s father Paul Comrie, who still lives in Pendleton, said he was extremely proud of his son for getting his wings last weekend after so much hard work training on multiple aircraft and logging countless hours in flight simulators.
He said he learned from one of Jeff’s instructors that approximately 100,000 men and women apply each year to become pilots across all branches of the military, but only about 600 will become so.
A U.S. Government Accountability Office report released in April 2018 recommended the Pentagon reevaluate its requirements for becoming a fighter pilot in light of an increasing shortage of pilots across all branches of the military.
The report noted that in 2006 the Marine Corps had 6% fewer pilots than authorized (meaning funded) positions. By 2017, that number had jumped to 24%.
“The military services invest significant time and funding to train, compensate, and retain fighter pilot,” the GAO report stated. “According to Air Force officials, it costs between $3-$11 million and takes approximately 5 years to develop an individual fighter pilot to lead combat missions.”
When Comrie ships out to North Carolina, he will be helping fill one of those needed, elite pilot positions. While people tend to think of pilots as an Air Force position, the Marine Corps needs pilots in-house who can provide air coverage to support their ground forces during missions.
“I’ve always idolized aviation aircraft,” he said. “There’s quite a legacy our country has in terms of aviation warfare.”