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TOKYO — It’s like spending 125 straight days in the air.

On Wednesday, helicopter pilot Cmdr. Eric Patten, commanding officer of HSL-51, The Warlords, passed his 3,000th hour of flight on a routine trip from Atsugi Naval Air Facility.

In line with aviation tradition, Patten’s squadron doused him with a fire hose after landing to celebrate the achievement.

“The hosing down might not be enjoyable but the fact that you’re getting hosed down is important,” he noted. “It’s taken a career to get there.”

Patten, 41, has served 19½ years in the Navy. Two-thirds of his flights have been in a SH-60B Seahawk — his current and favorite helicopter in terms of its mission. With his unit, Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron Light, he hunts subs, saves lives and protects ships and strike groups from enemies.

His favorite aircraft overall, however, was the fast and agile Lynx, which he flew in missions and air shows with the Royal British Navy in England during the start of his career.

Patten said he couldn’t even guess how many flights he’s made in his life.

The Seahawk runs out of fuel after 3½ hours so most flights are considerably shorter. To reach 3,000 he must have flown at least 1,000 flights over his career, not counting the years spent on the ground, while earning his master’s degree at the Navy War College and serving in Washington, D.C.

Patten learned about aviation from his father, an Air Force fighter pilot.

“I always wanted to be a pilot,” Patten said. His father “said the best pilots he’d ever flown with were the Navy aviators.”

So Patten came aboard and joined the Navy. But at 6 feet 2 inches tall, he didn’t fit well in a fighter jet cockpit. He switched to the roomier helicopters, and enjoys flying rotary-winged aircraft.

“I love flying helicopters,” he said. “I’ve done things in a helicopter you could never do in a jet. I’ve landed on beaches; I’ve landed on baseball fields. I’ve even landed at a Kentucky Fried Chicken.”

Some of the unusual stops were in connection with rescue and disaster relief missions. Many of his memorable flights involved saving lives, including six years ago when he saved a sailor on the USS O’Brien while it sailed near Australia. It took a nine-hour flight with two fuel stops but the sailor made it to safety.

“That part of it [gives] incredible job satisfaction,” he said. “When you medevac somebody and you save their life.”

Another memorable flight occurred while carrying reporters during a flight with the British navy.

“I had a gearbox failure on takeoff, which is a significant problem,” he said.

The failure heavily damaged the aircraft and he guided it back to safety. The press aboard later called him the “jovial American pilot, [even] after a life-threatening flight.”

Most of Patten’s life has been spent overseas, first growing up in Australia where his father served an exchange tour. With the Navy, Patten spent three years in England and later served in Japan on three occasions.

His current tour at Atsugi has spanned five years. He was executive officer of the Warlords before taking command in January.

The tour has enabled him to work in and lead what he considers the best squadron. Its motto is “Doing things others only dream about.”

Since activation in 1991, the squadron has earned six Battle Es for efficiency and five Capt. Arnold Jay Isbell Anti-submarine Warfare Awards.

Like most aviators, Patten credits his crew for his accomplishments.

“Without the squadron, 3,000 hours wouldn’t have been achievable,” he said. And while the milestone is nice, it doesn’t signal the end, he said.

“As a youngster you say, ‘I’m only going to do this ’til it’s no longer fun,’” he said. “This is still fun.”


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