An F-22 Raptor takes off from Holloman Air Force Base on Feb. 29. (A1C Daniel Liddicoet/Airman 1st Class Daniel E. Li)
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TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, FLA. — The Tyndall community was ready, expecting to receive 1,100 more airmen and 24 additional F-22s last year, until politics got in the way.
The base had been renovating hangars for the combat-coded group of Raptors, and the community’s schools and housing agencies were preparing to take in the jets from Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. After Congress was unable to pass a fiscal 2013 budget on time last year and Air Force assets were frozen, the move was delayed until next January. Now the base, and the surrounding Panama City community, is in a holding pattern.
“The community was a little frustrated with the slip, but they are just as engaged as they were before, if not more,” said Col. David Graff, commander of the 325th Fighter Wing.
Tyndall has been flying 31 training F-22s since 2004 under Air Education and Training Command. In 2010, the base was selected to take in combat F-22s as part of Air Combat Command.
The change in mission also brought the need for a change in mentality, Graff said.
“When we take 800 people and deploy them as a combat-coded F-22 unit deploys to an area of responsibility when a combatant commander needs their assistance, what does that look like in the community?” Graff said. “That’s a big shift since we haven’t had that at Tyndall.”
With the combat squadron will come a higher operational tempo on the base, and more flights at night. Seven T-38 Talons will also make the trip from Holloman to serve as training adversaries for the F-22s.
The combat squadron at Tyndall will have a total force component, with 250 reservists forming a squadron on base in an associate agreement, Graff said.
“It’s that readiness mentality of being able to get up and go, and having your family and your life in order to go,” Graff said. “It’s the challenge of the commander to create that sense of urgency, the sense of always trying to push the envelope. ... In combat you are pushing all the time and it’s tough to get a break.”
About 200 airmen already transferred to Tyndall before the move of the planes was placed on hold and have since been doing “back shop” maintenance work on things such as F-22 avionics, Graff said. Contractors were used for those jobs with the training squadron. But in a combat unit, maintainers will deploy and the work needs to be handled by “blue suits,” he said.
“We have been able to employ them in back shops and continue to use their perspective and their expertise to share with our airmen,” Graff said.
The infrastructure at the base is also getting ready. Crews at Tyndall have renovated three hangars, including one that is set to be a “low observable” hangar from which crews will work on maintaining the classified stealth profile of the Raptor. The base is also setting up offices for the squadron — old offices from the deactivated 95th Fighter Squadron that officials hope to reactivate and have fly F-22s, said Lt. Col. Ronald Gilbert, the 325th Fighter Wing’s program integration officer.
The building, next to the flight line and barbershop, still bears the seal of the 95th on the door — a skull wearing a monocle and a top hat next to a lightning bolt.
Additional renovations include heat shields on the flight line canopies to protect airmen from the F-22’s exhaust, and a bigger deployment center that can handle the greater number of airmen who will inevitably deploy as part of a combat squadron, Graff said.
Originally, the base expected to receive four F-22s per month starting last January. The Air Force’s decision to push back the move of the F-22s means this process will begin next January, at the same rate.
Holloman will keep its F-22 squadrons combat-ready until the move happens. Then it will receive two F-16 squadrons and 950 personnel from Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., which is in the process of preparing for training F-35 pilots.
As the jets arrive, commanders must make sure the “high-demand, limited-number asset” becomes combat-ready as soon as possible, Graff said. And that could be a challenge, following decisions by ACC to end exercises such as Red Flag and the possibility of weapon ranges closing.
“With the budget climate right now, a lot of those decisions are being put on the side burner as far as exercises. ... Getting this mission up and running quickly is critical,” Graff said. “I want my folks to go to Red Flag as soon as possible. I want my folks to be exercising as soon as possible. I want to hit the ground running so we are ready and able to provide combat operations.”