Farming-Out Air Power

Two-and-a-half hours north of St. Louis, in Quincy, Illinois, there is a private air force bigger than half the world’s combat air forces. In size, it ranks somewhere between South Africa’s and Mexico’s, and is growing (and hiring). The US military welcomes its existence.

Don Kirlin owns Air USA, “the leader in military combat readiness training,” which operates from the Quincy Regional Airport and provides “contractor adversary” and other air support to “the U. S. Defense Agencies, Defense Contractors, and Foreign Governments.” This has included helping military forward air controllers (now called Joint Terminal Air Controllers) practice close air support and combat attack; serving as training targets for ship-based gunnery; and playing the “bad guys” in “Top Gun”-like air combat scenarios.

Kirlin told a local news station that it is “a fraction of the cost” for the military to farm out these services than to do it themselves, and that it lessens wear-and-tear on their tactical aircraft and their crews. All of Kirlin’s pilots are, according to his website, “career Military Tactical Aviators, (active duty, reserve or retired) Fighter Weapons School graduates, test pilots or combat veterans.”

The company does not perform security or combat operations for hire, like an aerial Blackwater.

Kirlin used a US Air Force grant program to expand his business recently. The $6.4 billion grant will go to seven air-support companies, including his, and according to Kirlin, the more planes a contractor has, the more pay involved. That led him to the Royal Australian Air Force, which sold him 46 F/A-18 Hornets—their last ones, being retired and replaced with newer F-35s. The Hornets, enough for three squadrons, are reportedto be in excellent condition and come with nearly a billion dollars’ worth of spare parts. They all have high-tech electronic warfare pods and radar. (The US Navy retired its last Hornet only last year; Pete “Maverick” Mitchell flies a Super Hornet in the Top Gun sequel.)

Kirlin has been importing foreign military jets and combat-ready turboprop aircraft since 1994. He has eight licenses with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives for his jets and other aircraft, machine guns, cannons, and ammunition. His expansion is daring and risky, from its overhead costs to matters of safety. It will also employ more people. Air USA’s website says, “If you are a highly experienced fighter pilot and interested in putting your skill sets and training to work for service to the United States military and its allies…[i]f you are an aircraft maintenance or weapon system professional and are interested in working on high performance jet fighter aircraft and weapons systems…[i]f you are interested in a challenging and rewarding career as an Air USA logistics specialist,” to drop them a line.

I am holding out for a job in a private navy, maybe in the Mississippi River. It sounds ridiculous and even threatening, but everything is going to the private sector these days.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.