Oak Harbor's top gun
July 3, 2008 · Updated 1:08 PM
"At an age when most Oak Harbor kids hang out with friends at Kmart or go skateboarding, Ken Koelbl used to spend his spare time watching planes land and take off at the Oak Harbor Airpark.If he was lucky, the 13-year-old would catch a ride in the air with either a private pilot or Harbor Airlines.This obsession with airplanes led Koelbl to the Navy and a remarkably successful career as a pilot. He recently graduated at the very top of his class at flight school in Kingsville, Texas, and got the prime assignment of flying a F/A-18 Hornet with VFA-94 in Lemoore, Calif.To top it off, Koelbl received the David McCampbell Award, which is only given to one Navy pilot and one Marine in advanced training flight school. The top gun award, named after the Navy's all-time top flying ace, is given out by the American Fighter Aces Association.Yet visiting his hometown this week, Koelbl had to be prodded to speak about his accomplishment. Contrary to the Top Gun image of cocky fighter pilots, he is just a humble guy. I'm an average guy trying to be above average in what I do, he said. He doesn't talk about his award with fellow pilots in Lemoore. If he did, he says he would get an endless amount of ribbing since he's still the new kid on the block.To get inside the cockpit of a Hornet took Koelbl two years of training. In flight school, he says everyone starts out flying a T-34, which is the most basic aircraft. Over time the instruction gets more and more specialized. Everyone is separated out into different specialties, including prop airplanes, helicopters and jets.The Hornet, he says, is the premier strike fighter in the Navy. It's both an attack and air-to-air fighter. He says it's a one-person, self-sufficient plane that can fight its way into an area, drop bombs, and fight its way out.While it's definitely a thrill to control such a powerful piece of machinery, Koelbl says it's also very serious business. He said the entire base was shocked and sobered when fellow Hornet pilot Daren Jewell was killed when his plane crashed into the ocean. Koelbl and Jewell went to Oak Harbor High School together and were both involved in ROTC. He was an awesome pilot and an awesome son to his mother and an awesome friend to a lot of pilots down in Lemoore, he said. I know everyone feels that he died the most honorable kind of death.The thing that Koelbl says most surprises him about accomplishing his lifelong dream to become a top Navy fighter pilot is that flying is no longer the most important thing in his life. Family comes first. Koelbl and his wife, Krista, have three children ranging in ages from 6 years to infancy. He also has family in Oak Harbor - his father Randy Koelbl and mother Mary Gaines.Not surprising, his mom is wildly proud of him and happy for his success. Gaines remembers the boy who owned every flight simulation computer game ever made and spent endless hours perfecting his flying skills on the TV screen.She said she is grateful to the local pilots who noticed the teen-ager hanging out at the Oak Harbor airport. They dubbed him the airport bum and took him under their wings, so to speak. They encouraged him in his dream by taking him up in their planes and teaching him to fly, even letting him land on occasion.They must have noticed the glow in his eyes when he saw them land and take off, or when he just talked about flying, she said. "