HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah – It was an eerie sight at this normally bustling F-16 base. The flight line was completely clear of aircraft. Tools were neatly tucked away, hangars were silent and operations had completely come to a halt.
For the 388th Fighter Wing, it meant the start of sequestration, with one fighter squadron forced to reduce flying hours and another squadron completely shut down.
For more than three months, the 421st Fighter Squadron was reduced to “basic mission capable” flying hours, and the 4th FS stood down completely, causing a ripple effect for commanders, maintainers and pilots alike, and challenging them to find innovative ways to stay sharp and maximize opportunities.
Col. Lance Landrum is the commander of the 388th Fighter Wing and said that, through it all, the wing was still charged with the launch and recovery of aircraft, though the frequency was drastically reduced.
“Unfortunately, our Airmen lost a lot of training and experience that they will never get back during the stand down and reduced flying due to the sequester,” Landrum said. “In addition to nearly 30 lost flights per pilot, the Air Force canceled an entire RED FLAG exercise that we were scheduled to attend. However, they were true professionals in this and they found ways to adapt.”
“Everybody knew we were going to have some hard times ahead of us,” said Senior Airman Armando Ramirez, a dedicated crew chief with the 421st Aircraft Maintenance Unit. “Not one individual person was going to take the brunt of it … it was going to be our whole AMU.”
The commander of the 388th Maintenance Group, Col. Dane P. West, said he worked closely with 388th Operations Group commander, Col. Thomas G. Klopotek, to bring leadership from the affected squadrons together to plan for the challenges ahead of both the maintenance and operational sides of the house.
“The maintainers’ first priority was to make sure the aircraft were mission ready — combat ready,” West said. “The second priority was to train as many of the Airmen that were not qualified on the F-16 Fighting Falcon to combat ready status.”
Civilian furloughs created a challenge, amounting to a 38 percent loss in maintainers who were certified on the F-16 airframe, and a 20 percent loss in total force over the maintenance units.
West said leadership within the units came up with a solution that would both certify maintainers on the F-16, while simultaneously bolstering production of the squadron whose jets were still flying.
To start, West said the sister squadrons would rotate 30 maintenance Airmen every two weeks, essentially taking advantage of opportunities on both sides of the sequester.
He said the maintainers at the stood-down 4th FS would focus on meeting training requirements to qualify new Airmen on the F-16, and conduct full inspections of their grounded aircraft. Those at the still-flying 421st FS would focus on launch and recovery of aircraft, produce their allotted sorties and satisfy that training requirement for its maintainers.
“We had very few dropped sorties,” West said. “That kind of stability is absolutely huge.”
Relative to the implemented training program, more than nine percent, roughly 40 Airmen, from the maintenance squadron received their qualification on the F-16 airframe, which grew the force, West said.
The operations group faced a very different challenge.
“For my pilots … none of them actually took off and landed from the front seat of an F-16 for the duration of the stand down,” said Lt. Col. Todd Robbins, the 4th FS commander.
The skills Air Force pilots employ in the air are very perishable, Robbins said. Pilots need frequent contact with their airframe and constant repetition. He said simulators were used as much as possible, but without exposing the pilots to actual flying conditions such as G-force, there was a qualitative degradation.
“We did what we could with simulators and academic training,” said Capt. Derek Kirkwood, a pilot with the 4th FS. “Ultimately there’s no replacement for actually flying.”
With the 4th FS standing down and the 421st FS flying reduced hours, Kirkwood said the wing would have been hard pressed to respond to a major conflict or quick response situation.
“Everybody here has spent most of their adult life getting to this point,” he said. “This is what we want to do and we believe very strongly in the mission … having that taken away from you … there’s no way to feel good about it.”
Though frustrated, the squadrons did everything they could to make simulator time as challenging as possible for the pilots and increased their academic study time significantly. They did their best to create a plan that would have them back to combat-ready status as quickly as possible.
“We have some of the greatest Airmen in the Air Force working here in this squadron,” Kirkwood said. “They were able to keep the morale up and keep fighting through the sequestration with the assumption that someday we will start flying again. We needed to be as ready as possible when that day came.”
That day came July 15, and Airmen from maintenance and operations squadrons alike applied their respective plans to get back to combat-ready status. It was assumed after a 90-day stand down that it would take at least as many days to get back to combat ready.
For the 4th FS, Robbins said the process took only about four weeks thanks to the incredible sortie count produced by the maintainers, and for the 421st, about three weeks were needed to report as combat ready.
The Airmen of the 388 FW are back up and flying ahead of schedule due to collaborative effort between those Airmen working on the flightline and those in the air.
“I was concerned about what kind of morale would be in the squadron,” Robbins said, referring to his taking command mid-stand down. “The Airmen amazed and impressed me with their dedication, their attitude and their ability to make the most of this stand-down time … to handle sequestration with poise, professionalism and grace. In my mind, there’s nothing these Airmen can’t do.”