Budget cuts leave Air Force pilots twisting in the wind

May 31 2013 - 7:56pm

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Airmen with the 336th Tactical Fighter Squadron perform maintenance on a grounded F-15E fighter jet at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base near Goldsboro, N.C., on Thursday, May 23. The squadron, known as the "World Famous Rocketeers," was ordered to stop flying because of automatic federal budget cuts. (Photo for The Washington Post by Ted Richardson)
Brian Parker (left) and James Hash, airmen with the 336th Tactical Fighter Squadron, perform maintenance on a grounded F-15E fighter jet at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base near Goldsboro, NC, on Thursday, May 23, 2013.  The squadron was ordered to stop flying because of automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.  (Photo by Ted Richardson/For The Washington Post)
Airmen with the 336th Tactical Fighter Squadron perform maintenance on a grounded F-15E fighter jet at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base near Goldsboro, N.C., on Thursday, May 23. The squadron, known as the "World Famous Rocketeers," was ordered to stop flying because of automatic federal budget cuts. (Photo for The Washington Post by Ted Richardson)
Brian Parker (left) and James Hash, airmen with the 336th Tactical Fighter Squadron, perform maintenance on a grounded F-15E fighter jet at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base near Goldsboro, NC, on Thursday, May 23, 2013.  The squadron was ordered to stop flying because of automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.  (Photo by Ted Richardson/For The Washington Post)

SEYMOUR JOHNSON AFB, N.C. -- The "World Famous Rocketeers" were flying high two months ago. The Air Force fighter squadron had returned safely with its F-15E Strike Eagles and aircraft crews from a six-month Middle East deployment and in March passed a readiness evaluation with an unusually high rating.

That was then. In April, the Air Force ordered the Rocketeers -- more formally, the 336th Fighter Squadron -- to stop flying because of the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.

Now, the squadron's two dozen F-15s are parked underneath canopies on the flight line, with red covers over their gaping afterburners to keep out birds and critters. Glum pilots find themselves with lots of time for softball and community projects.

And the Air Force has one less fighter squadron available to fight.

"I have zero readiness and zero combat capability right now," said squadron commander Lt. Col. Jim Howard, 41. "It's extremely frustrating, knowing the unit that I had two months ago compared to where we are now."

It's a story repeated at bases across the country and the world, where the Air Force has had 13 combat squadrons, nearly one-third of its active-duty fighter and bomber squadrons, stand down to meet a $600 million reduction in money available for flying and readiness dictated by the mandatory cuts.

Closer to home

As part of the stand-down, the 29 pilots of Hill Air Force Base's 4th Fighter Squadron have been grounded as well.

Hill spokeswoman Andrea Mason said that, during the stand-down, air crew and maintainers will use flight simulators and academic training to maintain basic skills and knowledge of their aircraft.

Air crews will also complete ground training as funding allows, conduct nonflying exercises and study mission-related material and guidance.

Maintainers in the squadron will complete upgrade training and clear up a backlog of scheduled inspections and maintenance.

The Air Force has retained enough combat power to meet current requirements around the globe, including in Afghanistan, and an immediate crisis on the Korean Peninsula. Beyond that, senior officers said, it's a question mark.

Air Force officials said the "tiered readiness" they have adopted for active-duty air combat units, which they describe as unprecedented, carries the risk that combat airpower may not be ready to respond immediately to contingencies.

"We are funding the known and accepting risk in the unknown," Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, said Friday.

Savings ... but costs, too

Standing down the 336th through the end of the fiscal year will save about $50 million, according to the Air Force. But the savings will come with their own costs, officers said.

For every month that a squadron such as the Rocketeers sits, the Air Force estimates it will take an equal number of months to retrain the pilots. If the squadron does not fly for six months, it will take another half-year before it can be deployed.

On top of that are worries about the effect of a lengthy stand-down on the pilots and aircraft.

"It's kind of like changing an ingredient in Coke and wondering how it will change the taste," said Maj. Gen. Charles Lyon, director of air and space operations at the Air Combat Command.

The Rocketeers received word April 8 that flying would cease the next day, probably for the remainder of the fiscal year.

"That was a real shock," Howard said. "We didn't think it would go that deep."

The days now are rather desultory for the Rocketeers.

"If something happens somewhere in the world ... it's a little sad to know we won't be invited, because we're not qualified to do our jobs," said Capt. Kevin Murphy, a 27-year-old Texan who serves as a four-ship flight lead, a position reserved for experienced pilots.

On a recent afternoon, the squadron's operations desk, normally bustling with officers coordinating air space and relaying flight information to crews, had the somnolent air of a church parish office. Maj. Josh Trosclair, the squadron's assistant director of operations, manned the desk.

"I'm pretty much a glorified secretary answering the phone," Trosclair said. The phone was not ringing.

Nearby, an enormous white scheduling board covered a wall, with color-coded magnetic blocks set aside to denote planned flights. All of the slots were empty.

The pilots now train frequently on the base's sophisticated flight simulators. But this is not quite the same as working the controls in the cockpit of a fighter capable of flying 2 1/2 times the speed of sound.

"It's completely different -- the smell, the feel, the heat, the frigging everything," said Murphy, whose call sign is "Rowdy." "You don't fly for a month, it's tough to even start the engine again."

To keep busy, the crews prepare detailed mission plans for the simulator flights, exercise and tend to Air Force educational requirements.

"You take care of some PT (physical training), knock out some of your schoolwork, or whatever," Murphy said.

On the bright side, they have plenty of time for activities often sacrificed because of the demands of the job. They are coaching children's sports teams, attending school concerts, playing softball and golf, and using up accumulated leave. Some have helped a local Habitat for Humanity program build a house in Goldsboro.

"Eventually, the excitement of volunteering and softball will wear off," Howard said.

Plenty of F-15s still soar over Seymour Johnson. The base, near Goldsboro in the east-central part of the state, is home to a second F-15E combat squadron and two training squadrons, which continue to fly. The air is filled with the rumble of Pratt & Whitney engines as jets take off on training runs.

This is torture for the Rocketeers.

"I watch the jets take off and wish I could go," Murphy said. "It's kind of sad to watch the planes take off on a beautiful day like this."

Ready for combat?

After six months without flying, the pilots would lose qualification. To prevent this, the Rocketeer crew members are being allowed to fly sparingly with the squadrons still taking to the air. But the squadron's flight crews are no longer qualified as combat-mission ready.

Pilots who are not combat-mission ready might not be eligible for good assignments that could open up a year from now, meaning that they face a tougher road for promotion, a wave that could ripple through their careers.

Col. Jeannie Leavitt, who commands the squadron's parent unit, the 4th Fighter Wing, is worried about how the stand-down will affect the F-15s, which have been in service for a quarter-century.

"When they sit, there's a potential for problems," she said. "No one knows what's going to happen when we start flying the aircraft again."

Under the guidance issued by the Air Force, crews are allowed to do basic maintenance. They occasionally tow the planes to keep the tires from flattening. Every 30 days, the crews can run the engines, and every 60 days, a jet can be taken on a taxi run.

In the squadron hangar, Staff Sgt. Daniel Gullett showed off the jet that he maintains. "When I get a chance, I touch her up, clean her, so she's nice and pretty."

Walking along the flight line past parked F-15s, Capt. Justin Shetter, who is in charge of the squadron's maintenance unit, said the situation reminds him of a documentary he recently saw about the last days of the Soviet Union.

"I didn't think it could happen to us," he said. "We were always complaining about the 12-hour days, but we'd rather be turning jets."

Leavitt finds herself hard-pressed to answer how long the Rocketeers will not be flying.

"I could never have envisioned a squadron down because of a lack of money, so I can't guess what will happen in the future."

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