“And he’s based his life on that,” noted Frank Baker, a proud father and owner of Frank’s Golf Car Center in Warner Robins.
Those qualities have stood the younger Baker in good stead over the years and, most recently, have earned him significant recognition for his exploits in the U.S. Air Force.
After high school, he walked on as an underweight offensive lineman at Auburn University, beefed up his physique and eventually played in two bowl games for the Tigers before he graduated in 1991.
He was also a member of Air Force ROTC and Baker believes it was his son’s home environment that sparked the love for flying and the desire to join the Air Force.
“I had a small Cessna 172 and beginning when he was 7 or 8 he would fly with me a lot,” the father said.
The elder Baker’s 42 years at Robins Air Force Base also helped to cultivate that interest.
“I worked as a quality control inspector on F-15s and C-130s,” he said, “and he would often come out to the base with me.”
Those qualities and the interest in flying have blossomed since the younger Baker joined the Air Force. Over a 20-year career, now Maj. Baker has risen to prominence as a special operations pilot and “instructor of instructors,” achieving dual qualification as an evaluator pilot on both the MC-130P and the HC-130P/N.
Both aircraft form the backbone of the clandestine world of special operations where feats of exceptional bravery seldom are publicly mentioned. The MC-130P Combat Shadow can fly low-level air refueling missions or deliver and resupply troops often in hostile, isolated locations. The HC-130P/N is a refueler used to extend the range of combat search and rescue helicopters often in dangerous and contested airspace.
Baker’s exploits over the years have largely gone unnoticed outside of special operations circles. But that changed this year. In April, he was named Air Education and Training Command’s recipient of the Gen. Paul K. Carlton Award for valor. Earlier in the year, he was nominated by AETC for the 2011 Daedalian Exceptional Pilot Award.
Notably, the recognitions do not cover his time in the C-130 variants. Instead, they deal with a volunteer mission he undertook for AETC to teach Afghan pilots to fly the An-32, a twin-engine transport the Russians abandoned years ago when they pulled out of Afghanistan.
After two-months of training at the National Flight Academy in the Ukraine, he spent 12 months in Afghanistan instructing air crews and accompanying students to isolated locations throughout the country. He is credited with commanding 350 combat sorties and transporting more than 8,850 Afghan National Army soldiers and their equipment for battle with the Taliban.
The missions often were complicated by conditions Baker could not control. On one occasion, his team was stranded at a remote airfield near the Iranian border after a severe thunderstorm washed away part of the runway. Baker and his Afghan air crew took refuge in a government safe house where he developed and executed an action plan to guard against capture by insurgent forces.
"That was the 'surrealist' experience of all," he said by telephone on Tuesday from his home station at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. "I went 'native' for seven days as we waited until we could take off."
He also coordinated the first Afghan medical evacuation flight, airlifting 17 severely wounded soldiers to Kabul for treatment.
On another occasion, after insurgents attacked and killed nine fellow air advisors, Baker identified and implemented security measures that enabled An-32 operations to continue.
That poignant event came in April of last year when an Afghan colonel killed some nine American advisors including a long-time friend of Baker's. Fortunately, Baker was home on leave when the incident occurred.
"I had been there eight months by that time and although we lived on a NATO compound we worked at an Afghan base totally protected by Afghan security," he said.
The motive for the shooting was never proven, Baker indicated.
"The guy was a helicopter pilot and he walked into the command post and began shooting every American in there," he said.
The incident spurred additional security precautions.
"We went to work like we were hitting the beaches at Normandy," he recalled. "But we soon learned that we couldn't build friendships by holding a gun to someone's head. Plus there were far more of them than us. If they wanted to get you, you couldn't prevent it."
The Afghans he worked with were stunned by the incident.
"They were very sorry," Baker said. "We talked through it and moved on."
That level of trust was typical of Baker's impact on the Afghans. He developed numerous outside-the-wire relationships with Afghan officials that resulted in the flow of critical information, avoided potentially deadly altercations and exposed major corruption.
He told an Air Force writer that he was honored and humbled by the recognitions.
“It’s all the more special to be nominated based on events which happened under AETC, which were by far the furthest forward and potentially most hazardous assignment I’ve ever had,” he is quoted in the Air Force article. “I genuinely hope that this helps bring some much-needed attention to the incredible work AETC folks are doing every day supporting combat operations around the world.”
Baker has resumed his instructor duties with the 550th Special Operations Squadron at Kirtland. And he is enjoying life with his wife, Ginger, and the couple's two daughters: Emmalee, 13, and Madelyn, 8.
But he misses Afghanistan. "I was embedded with the Afghans for 12 months and I developed a heart for the Afghan people," he said. "They were very endearing, very engaging. They became like a second family. I learned to appreciate them as much as they drove me crazy."
He said his experiences were very special.
"Just the sheer 'surrealness' of flying a Russian airplane in Afghanistan like a bush pilot," he said. "I also miss the Afghan people."
The elder Baker, smiling frequently, said those three qualities continue to pay dividends for his son.
“His life is based around being a good person,” he said. “He’s a good Christian man and I guess God has been on his side. Dad’s very proud of him.”