Friday, November 15, 2013

Air Guard refueling pilot flies 100th combat sortie -- Lt. Col. Thomas Blake hails from Wakefield, New Hampshire

Lt. Col. Thomas Blake is a pilot serving with the 22nd Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron at Transit Center at Manas, Kyrgyzstan. Blake, who recently completed his 100th combat sortie and fini flight, is deployed out of Pease Air National Guard Base, N.H., and is a native of Wakefield, New Hampshire
 (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Robert Barnett)

TRANSIT CENTER AT MANAS, Kyrgyzstan — A 22nd Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron pilot deployed to Transit Center at Manas, Kyrgyzstan, recently flew his 100th combat sortie during an air refueling mission in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

“The mission today is to fuel the fight over Afghanistan,” said Lt. Col. Thomas C. Blake, deployed from Pease Air National Guard Base, Portsmouth, N.H. “Throughout the entire length of this campaign we have been providing fuel so that the fighters, bombers and transport aircraft don’t have to land and get refueled and spend time as well as extra expenses on trying to get what they need.”

Although it isn’t uncommon for a pilot to reach 100 combat sorties, Blake said the timing is what makes this milestone special.

“One hundred combat sorties after an 11- or 12-year campaign isn’t totally unusual,” Blake said. “What’s unique for me is that my first combat sortie didn’t start until I was well into my career nearly 10 years ago in 2004 at age 45. To have my last one here at age 55, for me it’s a milestone. I can take that and put it away and maybe tell my grandkids about it someday, that’s why it’s unique.”

Blake, a Wakefield, N.H., native has had a unique Air Force career that spans 32 years.

“I’m a returned to active duty guy. We’re affectionately known as retreads, like taking an old tire and putting new rubber on it,” Blake said with a laugh. “I was on active duty and then I separated from the Air Force for six or so years; then came back to the Air National Guard, and did that for 13 years. I had my first opportunity to come here, separated from the guard and was offered the opportunity to come back on active duty. So I’ve been in the Air Force three different times.”

Blake is currently active duty, but when he was in the Air National Guard, he was a military and civilian pilot.

“I’ve had the opportunity to do that (military flying) and civilian flying at the same time, back and forth,” Blake said. “It’s been a very rewarding career, a very busy career. Overshadowing the whole thing is a love for this country, it’s very simple.”

His passion for flying began at a young age.

“My mother took me to Spain in a plane pretty close to this one (a KC-135) a long time ago, that’s when I fell in love with aviation,” Blake said. “From that point I wanted to be an airline pilot, a military pilot, I wanted to do whatever it took to get up in the air. I went through the military for my Air Force training and fell in love with military flying.”

Although he plans on retiring from his Air Force career within a year, he said he’ll most likely go back to being an airline pilot.

“I’m going to stay home and be with my wife and fly the ‘line’, as they call it in the airlines,” he said. “It’s not quite as exciting as this, not quite as demanding, but it’s good just the same.”


Thursday, November 14, 2013

Among other things: Remembering a courageous pilot

Posted: Thursday, November 14, 2013 3:02 pm

Column by Paul Fugleberg

Among the many thousands of war heroes honored during Veterans Day, Nov. 11, was the late Harry Lee Shryock of Polson.  He served in the Army Air Corps during World War II and then in the US Air Force in the Korean and Vietnam conflicts.

A native of Elyria, Ohio, Shryock enlisted in the air corps, received flight training at Barksdale Field where he earned his wings and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in February 1942 and was assigned to the 44th heavy bombardment group. In July he was sent to North Africa and saw action right away.

As a B-24 Liberator bomber pilot, he and his crew pounded Rommel’s forces from Egypt to Tunisia over the next eight months. His plane was called “Stinger” and survived 35 dangerous bombing missions. Although his plane was riddled with machine gun bullets and anti-aircraft flak, neither Shryock nor his crew were wounded.

He received the Distinguished Flying Cross, was promoted to captain and at the end of eight months, returned to the U.S. and was assigned as assistant operations officer to the bomb group.

He remained in the Air Force and retired as a lieutenant colonel and he and his wife Deola settled in Polson.

He didn’t hang up his wings, though. He occasionally flew charter flights for Phil Timm from the Polson airport. One of those flights included me and my daughter Ruth, who was trying out for a Boise State University women’s basketball scholarship. Also flying with us was a Bigfork high school girls’ basketball team member who came along for moral support for Ruth.

The weather was poor enough that commercial airlines between Missoula and Boise weren’t flying that day. The Boise tryouts were set for 2 p.m. But small planes were permitted to fly. Phil asked Lee if he wanted to take trip and he agreed. So, off we went in Timm’s Cessna 180.

Initial plan was to cross the mountains near Stanley, Idaho, and go direct to Boise. But weather obscured the pass. Lee decided to head to Mountain Home and then to Boise. That route was weathered in too. Looked like we’d have to back track. As we got back near Stanley again, the weather had lifted and we could go straight to Boise.

Ruth got there just as tryouts were starting. And she was successful and received a tuition scholarship. Bad weather prevented flying the Boise-Stanley-Polson route for the return trip. It was flyable from Boise to Dillon.  When we reached Dillon, weather was too stormy in the Missoula-Polson area. So we landed at Dillon, got a couple motel rooms for the night, and flew home the next day in bright sunshine.

During the challenging trip, Lee told me, “I’ve flown a lot of planes, some pretty big ones, but in a small plane, I really feel like I’m flying. It’s the best!”

A few years later, Lee again showed that his wartime courage was still unbroken. In January 1984, 27-year old David Cameron Keith robbed a Missoula pharmacy at gunpoint and got away with some 500 prescription drugs including Dilaudid, a synthetic heroin. The robber drove north on US 93 to the Post Creek store where he stopped, dashed into the store and grabbed a 13-year-old boy as a hostage, and took him in the family’s pickup truck after firing a shot at the boy’s father, and fled north until being stopped at a roadblock near the top of Polson hill.

With gun pointed at the hostage’s head, Keith demanded an airplane and pilot.

Shryock volunteered to be the pilot. In his patrol car, Sheriff Glenn Frame led Keith and the hostage to the airport where Shryock was at the controls of a Beechcraft Bonanza single engine plane. The hostage was released and Keith got into plane.

After attempts were made to start the airplane’s engine, Keith shot and killed the pilot and deputies shot and wounded the robber.

Following a trial the killer was sentenced to die by lethal injection on Jan. 20, 1989.

However, on Jan. 2, 1989, outgoing Governor Ted Schwinden granted clemency to Keith, and accepted the Board of Pardons recommendation to commute the sentence to life in prison without parole. The governor said his decision was based on his review of Keith’s life, a meeting with Keith at the prison, and a phone conversation with the family of Harry Lee Shryock.

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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Collier County, Florida heroes honored with public service awards

Tony Radelat was pinned upside down in a tree, 20 feet above the ground after crashing his ultralight plane in March near Lake Trafford in Immokalee.

The Cape Coral man struggled to remain conscious as he spoke with Collier County Sheriff’s Office 911 dispatcher Richard Swink.

The two men would remain on the phone for nearly two hours.

Gradually triangulating Radelat’s position by the sounds of helicopter rotors in the background of the call — an ingenuous maneuver Collier Sheriff Kevin Rambosk called a high-stakes game of “hot-and-cold” — Swink guided rescue personnel to Radelat’s location in time to save the man’s life.

And for that, Radelat, 68, will be eternally grateful.

“All through the ordeal, he just kept me going,” Radelat said. “He kept saying, ‘We have you. We have your position. We’re coming for you.’ It kept me from passing out.”

In recognition of his heroic efforts, Swink was one of four people honored on Wednesday with a 2013 Distinguished Public Service Award by the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce in a ballroom at the Hilton Naples.

Other award recipients during the 10th annual event highlighted by a keynote speech from state Sen. Garrett Richter included Jerry Sanford of the North Naples Fire Control and Rescue District, for his ongoing efforts to construct a local memorial for the victims of Sept. 11, 2001; Collier Sheriff’s Detective Scott Peterson, for his investigative work in tracking down an out-of-state man who’d absconded with two Golden Gate teenagers he’d met on the Internet; and Collier EMS Lt. Diane Smith, for her sterling track record with the agency.

Swink deflected credit for his part in saving Radelat’s life while he accepted the Life and Safety Award.

“I’m greatly honored and humbled to receive an award like this, but I’m more grateful that Tony is here with us today,” Swink said. “It could’ve been anyone else answering the phone and the result would’ve been the same. I just happened to pick up the phone that day.”

Radelat was present at Wednesday’s ceremony to thank Swink personally.

“When I heard that Rich was receiving this award, I don’t think wild horses could’ve kept me away,” Radelat said, drawing a wave of laughter from the crowd.

“To me, Rich is the most deserving person of this award because I am living proof of what he does. I want to thank him from the very bottom of my heart.”

Sanford — a former New York City firefighter — fought back tears as he accepted the Fire Safety Award.

“I humbly accept this award in memory of the innocent people who lost their lives on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 in New York City, at the Pentagon and on Flight 93,” he said in a voice choked with emotion. “We will never forget you.”

In addition to helping track down the missing Golden Gate teenagers, Peterson was also honored on Wednesday for his part in helping to find a missing Immokalee child.

Since Peterson is currently out of the country, his Law Enforcement Award was accepted on his behalf by his son, Trevor, who Rambosk swore-in as a Collier sheriff’s deputy Tuesday night.

“I’m honored to accept this award on his behalf and I’d like to thank everyone for his nomination,” the younger Peterson said.

In the past year, Smith has received a 100 percent compliance-rate on an unannounced inspection, administered 1,600 medical procedures and has overseen a nearly flawless response-time on 430 emergency calls.

“I’m very honored, very grateful and very humbled,” Smith said as she received the Emergency Medical Service Award. “Thank you very much.”

Richter, a Bronze Star recipient during the Vietnam War, said the word “pride” best summed up what everyone in the ballroom should have felt Wednesday.

“This is a community that everyone in this room should be proud of, and you should always carry that pride wherever you go,” he said.

Daily News Editor Manny Garcia emceed the ceremony.

“The selection process was very difficult,” Garcia said. “There are stories out there that the general public will never hear about, but for these men and women they’re everyday events.”

Chamber of Commerce President and CEO John Cox echoed those sentiments.

“It’s humbling to be in the presence of these heroes,” he said.

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NTSB Identification: ERA13LA171 
14 CFR Part 91: General Aviation
Accident occurred Saturday, March 16, 2013 in Immokalee, FL
Aircraft: MCNULTY JOHN S AEROLITE 103, registration: N2549W
Injuries: 1 Serious.

This is preliminary information, subject to change, and may contain errors. Any errors in this report will be corrected when the final report has been completed. NTSB investigators may not have traveled in support of this investigation and used data provided by various sources to prepare this aircraft accident report.

On March 16, 2013, about 1000 eastern daylight time, an experimental, amateur built, Aerolite 103, N2549W, was substantially damaged when it collided with terrain near Immokalee, Florida. The private pilot sustained serious injuries. The airplane was registered to and operated by the private pilot under the provisions of Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed and no flight plan was filed for the personal flight. The flight departed from Immokalee Regional Airport (IMM), Immokalee, Florida at 0900.

According to the pilot’s spouse, he was returning from a local flight. She spoke to him prior to his departure and he stated that everything was “fine” with the airplane. This was the last time she spoke to the pilot. At approximately 1045, the pilot called 911 to advise them that he had crashed his airplane and needed assistance. First responders located the pilot, and he was transported to a local hospital.

Examination of the airplane by the local authorities revealed that it came to rest in a heavily wooded area, and exhibited substantial damage. The airplane will be recovered for further examination at a later date.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

8-Year-Old Returns Dog Tag ‘Treasure’ to Family of WWII Pilot


MEDINA, Ohio– Nearly seven decades after a WWII U.S. pilot from Texas was shot down over France, a Medina third grader has successfully returned the pilot’s dog tag to his family.

Jack Robbins was flying a dive-bombing mission when he crashed into a field in France.

He was cared for by a family in France until he was eventually held as a prisoner of war by the Germans.

Robbins escaped and made his way back to the United States where he farmed with his cousin in New Mexico until his death in 1969.

Twenty years later, one of his dog tags was found in a field in France.

Eight-year-old Lenny Aydemir says the man who found it was a friend of his uncle in France.

After an unsuccessful search to try and find Robbins or his relatives, the friend gave the dog tag to Aydemir’s uncle, who brought it to the United States during a visit and gave it to his nephew to continue the search.

Aydemir’s efforts paid off when he found Chicago historian Jackie Flannery, who was already researching Robbins’ 396th Fighter Squadron.

Together they were able to locate relatives of Robbins who came to Medina on Monday for a very special presentation at Aydemir’s elementary school.

“Nobody else could pull this off. Nobody else would be able to bring this together except Lenny and the fact that he’s French even makes it that much better,” said Flannery, who was also in Medina for the Veterans Day presentation.

“It would be like a treasure to give it to them,” said Ayedmir, adding, “like it’s not just a dog tag to them; it’s like a treasure.”

The search not only brought the dog tag back to Robbins’ family, it also brought together relatives who had not seen one another in about four decades.

“What is impressive to me is that we have photo albums that are the mother load,” said Marcus Tucker, 73, a nephew of Robbins who came to Medina from his home in Colorado.

“Jack’s mother’s personal photo album has surfaced after four generations of being lost and I have it now and that is treasure, unbelievable treasure,” said Tucker.

“The reason I am here, and this is personal, is for my grandmother, Jack’s mom and for my father, Jack’s brother. I’m here for them in their sted because they can’t be here,” added Tucker.

“That is something else. I mean, it really is, that somebody found them and wanted to try and get them back to him that is marvelous right there in itself, that they tried so hard for so long,” said Cheryl Robbins, the pilot’s daughter-in-law.

Robbins said her father-in-law never really talked about his WWII experience.

“I knew that he had been shot down and was in a prisoner of war camp and every once in a while my husband would tell me things that he would say you know about how bad it was and things like that, but he never really talked about it,” said Robbins, explaining that she has learned more over the past year since Aydemir’s search began than she ever had about what her father-in-law had experienced.

“I’m proud of myself doing something to give the dog tag to the family of Jack,” said Aydemir.

“He was very proud of what he did,” said Cheryl Robbins of her father-in-law, concluding, “he was very proud that he got to do something for the people, so yeah, I think he’d be very happy and excited to get them back.”

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Monday, November 11, 2013

Veterans Day: Museum reunites retired pilots with their Vietnam-era aircraft

L to R: Ret. U. S. Air Force pilot Gordon Jenkins of Indio, Palm Springs Air Museum Managing Director Fred Bell and air museum Board Chairman Don Gilbertson stand near the newly-renovated F-105D Thunderchief in the museum's Pacific Hangar on Friday, Nov. 8, 2013.

PALM SPRINGS — Two distinguished Vietnam War veterans — pilots with 167 combat missions between them — were reunited Friday night with the plane they flew through hostile territory in Southeast Asia during the late 1960s.

When the men walked into the Pacific Hangar at the Palm Springs Air Museum, they looked up in awe at the newly renovated Republic F-105D Thunderchief — a supersonic fighter-bomber that had been slated for demolition before the air museum stepped in and rescued it from an inglorious fate.

The F-105D sitting in the hangar flew strike missions over Vietnam in March, 1967 with the 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron, based in Thailand.

The air museum tracked down two pilots who flew in this squadron — U.S. Air Force Col. Thomas Kirk, 85, of Anthem, Ariz. and U.S. Air Force Lt. Gordon Jenkins, 70, of Indio — and recognized the men for their service during an intimate gathering on Friday. The aircraft was unveiled to the public on Saturday.

Kirk’s and Jenkins’ names are emblazoned on the sides of the cockpit canopy.

“It’s very emotional to see this airplane and get his and my name on it, I’ll tell you that,” Kirk said.

Kirk, who flew 66 successful missions before being shot down on Oct. 24, 1967 — and spent 5½ years as a prisoner of war — was the squadron’s executive officer at the time.

On March 29, 1967, Jenkins flew the F-105D #61-0108 — the very aircraft on display at the air museum — on his 45th combat mission over Vietnam.

Jenkins’ eyes light up when he talks about the Thunderchief.

“It was just the most fun thing you could ever do,” Jenkins said. “I was 24 years old. What a wonderful airplane it was to fly. It’s the world’s largest single-engine, single-seat fighter.”

The fleet suffered heavy losses during the war.

“In four years, we went from an inventory of having 495 airplanes to 98 airplanes — an 80 percent loss rate flying 2,000 sorties — but we were young and foolish and it was just a great jet to fly.”

Kirk was a fighter pilot for all 28 years he was in the service. He started out in the Korean War flying the F-86 jet fighter aircraft.

“I was an operations officer of an F-100 squadron in Japan in 1966 and I was volunteering for everything I could to try to get there (to Vietnam), because as a career pilot, I felt that if there’s a war on, you ought to be there,” Kirk said. “Finally, in December of ’66 I was able to get an assignment to the F-105.

“I was only in Thailand for about three weeks before I became a commander of this squadron,” he said, pointing at the Thunderchief, which features the squadron’s logo — a fire-breathing dragon — painted by artist Stan Stokes. “Most of the missions I had were downtown, right in the Hanoi region.

“There was so much anti-aircraft fire and such heavy intensity ... it was incredibly frightening and terrifying every time you went on a bomb run. It looked like a Fourth of July fireworks display.”

The hulking Thunderchief — nicknamed the “Thud” because of the loud sound it made when it touched down on the runway — conducted the majority of strike bombing missions during the early years of the Vietnam War.

Just over 800 F-105s were manufactured and nearly half of those were lost in combat during the Vietnam War.

“A lot of guys that were captured or killed there came out of this airplane,” Fred Bell, the museum’s managing director, said. “It was the only aircraft ever to withdraw because of combat losses during the Vietnam War.”

The aircraft is on loan from Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, where the Mach-2-capable, workhorse warbird was scheduled to meet the metal crusher.

When Bell expressed interest in the supersonic speedster in June, the Air Force gave the air museum until the end of August to haul the aircraft off the base.

Thanks to an outpouring from the desert community, the museum raised not only the $21,000 needed to tear down, transport and restore the F-105, but an additional $19,000 to maintain the plane.

“It’s highly unusual that we get to do this with our airplanes, because most of the time we don’t have this much detail,” Bell said.

The renovations were completed in about two months, thanks to “countless volunteer hours,” he added.

“Putting it all together — because it had been demilitarized and all cut up — we had to put patch panels on it. The final phase, the painting, makes the whole job come together, ” said Tom Krueger, Air Museum director of operations.

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Sunday, November 10, 2013

Airplanes used to train ‘Greatest Generation’ still take to the skies: Pilots say owning historic aircraft is epitome of historic aviation

 John Ockenfels sits poised in the cockpit of his vibrant yellow T-6 airplane, the eyes of three fellow pilots glued to him. As he raises his hand, the engine of his slumbering 1940s war bird kicks to life. 

The other pilots follow suit. A soft hiccup and a plume of white smoke flow from each of the four T-6 planes, first Ockenfels’ yellow craft, then a gray, another gray, and finally a silver plane. The air, which seconds ago had carried nothing but the muffled tones of a gentle summer breeze is filled with the raucous sound of four steel giants, itching to fly.

The quartet spent roughly a half-hour soaring above the Iowa City Municipal Airport on a late August morning. Between 1,500 and 2,000 feet above the ground, they passed over in diamond, V and echelon formations. But the distance betrayed reality. And what from the ground appeared to be a leisurely flight for four pilots was in fact a calculated, intense exercise in precision.

“When you are flying, there are a lot of things to keep an eye on. It is a high stress situation,” says Jim Rohlf, who piloted one of the two gray and orange planes. “Especially when you get rough air and the planes are getting bobbed around. When you are up there and there are planes flailing around, you have all those moving parts in three dimensions you have to keep track of. And now, you have three or four planes in a row, there is a lot going on there.”

Nuts and bolts

With a top speed of roughly 225 mph, the T-6 isn’t the fastest plane available on the market. It isn’t the sleekest, or most maneuverable craft ever built either.

But for this quartet of fliers, owning and maintaining one of these historic 1940s crafts — which originally were used to train military pilots during World War II and into the 1950s — is the epitome of hobby aviation.

“I’ve put people in the back seat of my plane, and the last time they have seen a T-6 was when they were in the military,” David Mills says.

Mills owns a sleek silver T-6. The sun bounces off the gleaming metallic rivets and red-capped nose.

The paint scheme — which is a tribute to the Mosquito Squadron, a group that flew missions in Korea — was not Mills’ handiwork.

“It is painted that way because the guy that I bought it from had it that way,” he says. “I own it to fly it.”

Others in the group, though, have taken it upon themselves to modify their historic birds’ plumage.

“The paint scheme on mine exactly matches the paint scheme on the Iowa Air National Guard for 1952,” Ockenfels says.

Ockenfels says it was important to him to pay homage to the group of Iowans who flew T-6s because “that was the only military flying you could do in Iowa, was the Air Guard.”
A piece of history

For every member of the group, owning and operating a piece of history takes precedence over the physical aesthetics of the craft.

“Part of it is because they were actual U.S. property trainers,” Ockenfels says. “They used to be owned by our government and were used to train what we call ‘The Greatest Generation,’ so it does contribute to that.”

And Don Gurnett, who owns the second of the two gray and orange T-6s, says helping former servicemen reconnect with their pasts by giving them rides is an emotional experience.

“I have taken people up for rides, guys who are practically in tears when they got out of the airplane,” Gurnett says.

Formation flying

Minutes after landing from their flight over the Iowa City Airport, the four men sat in the office of Ockenfels’ hanger. As they debriefed each other on the flight, a minor disagreement between Ockenfels and Gurnett ensued.

The duo disagreed on what speed was adequate for certain maneuvers, and while a few miles per hour difference may not seem like a big deal, one of the pilots pointed out how when flying, even minor adjustments can have major consequences.

“We debrief air speeds. It is always about getting better and perfecting the art, and flying to exacting critical standards,” Mills says. “Because if you get a guy who is not on his game or isn’t competent, current, and capable, well, you trust your life with him and that is quite a bond between pilots.”

But while life-threatening situations are a real possibility in formation flying, Ockenfels used a somewhat curious word to describe how he feels when flying with the other three pilots: “Comfortable.”

“We start off with a training program. We don’t just go off and do this,” Ockenfels says. “We go through training programs so I could have walked up on the street and have just met these guys for the first time, and after a little bit of discussion, we would figure out what we know, what we think we know, and what we really know, and whether we are going to fly together.”

But not every formation these men fly their planes in is to wow or impress, some are to pay respects.

“The missing man is a tribute to veterans and servicemen who gave so much in defending our country,” Mills says. “I have done countless of them and that is particularly gratifying.”

The missing man formation is frequently flown by four planes in a V formation, where one of the lead pilots abruptly pulls his plane vertical, flying up into the sky, away from the group.

“Somebody has to defend the country at some point and I have flown over for funerals for kids that got killed in Afghanistan or Iraq,” Rohlf says. “We are not on the ground seeing what it (war) is, but you cannot forget these people, so that is why we do flyovers.”

Why they fly

Mills remembers the exact moment he wanted to become a pilot.

“I know the instant,” he says. “I flew in with my dad and some friends on floats into a rural fishing cabin, and I just thought that was the coolest thing in the world. I was in junior high at the time.”

For others in the group, that passion started even younger.

Ockenfels remembers watching planes take off and land at the airport near his childhood home.

“I used to sit on the front porch saying, ‘some day I’m going to get to ride in one of those airplanes,’ ” he says.

Gurnett, the most senior member of the quartet, remembers getting the itch as a child playing with model planes in an aviation club in Cedar Rapids.

But for every member of the group, flying is a passion they put time, money and effort into. They all count themselves lucky to be in possession of a T-6, and they don’t take that responsibility lightly.

“They are just neat old airplanes, and they are not making any more, and there is nothing like them,” Ockenfels says. “There are a lot of people who will look you in the eye and say, ‘I don’t own that T-6, I just happen to be the current caretaker.’ ”

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