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Lt. Col. Privette, known as Bear, left, and Joe Belina, both Owatonna natives, proudly stand in front of the Strike Eagle during Belina’s last B course flight earlier this year. Belina is soaring to great heights in becoming a top fighter pilot. Submitted photo
Owatonna native hits mark with Air Force
Rick Bussler, Publisher
“You have to have that fighting spirit. You don’t give up.”
-Joe Belina, Air Force Fighter Pilot

Joe Belina chuckles when asked how he got interested in becoming a fighter pilot.

“I wish I had a better story for you,” said Belina. “I was 7 years old when my dad and I went into Best Buy. He suggested I get a firefighting pilot game. I told him no. And for whatever reason, he ended up getting it.”

And there has been no looking back since his father, Peter, went against the young child’s wishes and bought him the game. “It hooked me pretty much right away,” said Joe Belina.

Belina’s love for video games has launched him into a career of piloting F-15E Strike Eagles with the U.S. Air Force.

“I have never considered doing anything else. It made me dream big, that’s for sure,” he said. “I got this wild idea that I could do it.”

The 2016 graduate of Owatonna High School attended a four-year military academy in Colorado Springs. In April 2021 while in Texas for pilot training, he was selected to fly the Strike Eagle.

Years of flying have paid off in a big way. On March 29, Belina captured the Top Gun Air-to-Air award, which is the highest score of all pilots, at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, N.C.

Asked what the rush is like of being a fighter pilot, Belina said: “I don’t believe it’s possible to get it until you’ve done it. It’s the sense of speed, doing loops and the Gs pulling as hard as we can.”

Oddly enough, Belina’s favorite aspect of being a fighter pilot is the mental focus that it requires. “There is no time to think of anything else,” he says. “It’s an adrenalin rush, for sure.”

As a Strike Eagle pilot, Belina flies anywhere from 100 to 30,000 feet at 600 miles per hour. Their mission is simply to “drop all sorts of bombs” when warranted.

The importance of what the Air Force does was highlighted recently when U.S. officials singled out the role of F-15E Strike Eagles in downing more than 70 Iranian drones in April. USAF fighters shot down the Iranian drones in defense of Israel.

“We are very valuable to the Air Force,” Belina says.

Belina will eventually be deployed into combat zones like the Pacific or Middle East, but he’s not worried. “It’s something I want to do. I’m not concerned about my safety,” he said. “We don’t just do this for fun. Ultimately, it’s a combat role and we’re here to advance the interests of the U.S.”

The F-15E is a two-seater plane. In addition to the pilot, there is also a weapons systems officer (WSO) on board. “Teamwork makes the dream work,” Belina said.

There are 500 pilots and WSOs in the Strike Eagle. Belina has flown with some other Owatonna natives, including Lt. Col. Privette, whose call sign is Bear. He graduated from Owatonna in 2014 and flew F-15C in Japan for three years. Another one is Martin Gleason, whom Belina was in Boy Scouts with while growing up.

Attitude, Belina said, is the most important characteristic of being a good pilot. Other critical traits are aggressiveness, always striving to be better, hand-eye coordination and multi-tasking.

“You have to have that fighting spirit,” Belina said. “You don’t give up. You’re always going in and being mentally tough,” he added.

As a fighter pilot, Belina looks at it as living “life to the max” while behind the controls. “It’s exciting to be part of something so much bigger than myself,” he said. “You couldn’t pay me to do anything else.”

Belina said he owes much of his success to the support he received from school and community back in Owatonna. He credits his academics for preparing him the most with his career. “You don’t go anywhere without strong academic support,” he said.

While in school, he played the viola in the orchestra, basketball, baseball, cross country and he was an Eagle Scout. He also joined the Civil Air Patrol in Mankato when he was 14 and started flying gliders.

“That cemented it,” he said of the glider experience. “I was even more all in.”

He later became a glider instructor pilot while in college.

Not surprisingly, Top Gun is Belina’s favorite movie of all time. The Top Gun Naval Fighter Weapons School featured in the film is where the best of the best train to refine their elite flying skills. “I watch that movie once a month,” he said.

Comparing real life fighter pilot to video games, Belina has found the video is loosely based on reality. He refreshed himself with the childhood game by playing it a year ago. Some of the detail with the jet is “pretty accurate,” but the rest is “over the top,” he said.

While he may have been skeptical of his dad back at the Best Buy store, he owes it to him for carving a path to protecting Americans. “It’s fulfilling that I will be fighting with and for them. My childhood dream has come true.”

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