The Air Force will transfer F-22 Raptors and airmen who are part of a Florida fighter squadron upended by Hurricane Michael to three other states, and it isn’t clear yet whether they will return, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said Friday.
The 95th Fighter Squadron, of Tyndall Air Force Base, and its 21 F-22s will instead fly from Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska and Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickham in Hawaii, she said. The Air Force also will disperse its Noncommissioned Officer Academy based at Tyndall to McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base in Tennessee, Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base in Alabama, Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi and Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas.
The storm on Oct. 10 made a direct hit on the base, located 12 miles east of Panama City, destroying hangars and damaging aircraft. Air Force officials have said that most of the base’s 55 F-22s — considered the nation’s premier air-to-air combat aircraft — flew away in advance of the storm, but some remained in hangars because of maintenance issues. The Air Force has declined to say how many F-22s were at Tyndall when the storm hit, but Sen. Marco Rubio (R.-Fla.) put the number at 31 percent, or 17 aircraft.
Wilson said Friday that in coming months, nearly all of the 11,000 airmen and employees at Tyndall will return to the Florida Panhandle, with about 500 assigned to the 95th Fighter Squadron and the academy serving as the exception. About 1,500 airmen will return to Tyndall within weeks. There is expectation that an operational fighter squadron could eventually return to Tyndall because of the training range space nearby, but it is unclear if it will include F-22s or some other aircraft once the base is restored.
“We are focused on taking care of our airmen and their families and ensuring the resumption of operations,” Wilson said. “These decisions were important first steps to provide stability and certainty. We’re working hard to return their lives to normalcy as quickly as possible.”
Among the units that will resume operations at Tyndall by Jan. 1 is the 601st Air Force Operations Center, which tracks airspace for foreign aircraft for U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command. Other units will remain nearby.
The Air Force also will transfer two fighter squadrons that oversee jets for pilot training to Eglin Air Force, about 60 miles away from Tyndall. The 43rd Fighter Squadron, which flies F-22s for training, and the 2nd Fighter Squadron, which flies T-38 jets to serve as adversaries in training, will make those moves, while academic facilities and flight simulators at Tyndall continue to be used. They were not destroyed by the storm.
Before the storm, Tyndall had the largest concentration of F-22s anywhere in the world. The eye of the storm traveled directly over the base’s two runways and several hangars where the aircraft were stored.
Wilson said Friday that she expects all of the F-22s will fly again, with the last jets departing Tyndall by Dec. 6. It isn’t clear when those jets will be “fully mission-capable,” meaning able to not only fly but also carry out combat operations. The jets, worth about $140 million each, are considered highly nimble at both supersonic and subsonic speeds, and they keep a small radar signature that makes it hard for adversaries to track.