Budget cuts leave Air Force pilots twisting in the wind


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. (Ted Richardson/For The Washington Post)

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 the entire wing 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 Lt. Col. Jim Howard, the 41-year-old squadron commander. “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 stood down 13 combat squadrons, nearly one-third of its active-duty fighter and bomber squadrons, to meet a $600 million reduction in money available for flying and readiness dictated by the mandatory cuts.

During his commencement address at the U.S. Naval Academy, the president urged Congress to pass a budget that would fund the military and “middle class priorities.” (The Washington Post)

The Air Force has retained enough combat power to meet current requirements around the globe, including in Afghanistan and any 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 there may not be sufficient combat air power to respond immediately to contingencies.

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

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.

Impact on readiness

For every month that a squadron such as the Rocketeers sits, the Air Force estimates that it will take an equal number of months to retrain the pilots. If the squadron does not fly for six months, it will take an additional 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 W. 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.”

An unusual quiet pervades the corridors of squadron headquarters, which are lined with photographs showing its unusual lineage, dating to American volunteers who flew Spitfires with the Royal Air Force during World War II and continuing through moments of glory during the wars in Korea, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq.

The days now are rather desultory for the Rocketeers.

“If something happens somewhere in the world — we were talking about this in the bar — 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 tall, 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 the slots were empty.

In another room, the pilots’ green G-suits hung undisturbed in open lockers.

Trying to stay sharp

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 21 / 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, set amid pine trees 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.”

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 336th’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 to promotion, a wave that could ripple through their careers.

Concerns about the planes

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-15Es, 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 prevent flat spots on the tires. 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,” he said.

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 reminded him of a documentary that he recently saw on television 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 say 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,” she said.

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