Saturday, November 28, 2015         

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Air Force combat units grounded

By Brock Vergakis

Associated Press


NORFOLK, Va. » A third of the U.S. Air Force's active-duty force of combat planes including fighters and bombers will be grounded due to federal budget cuts, and only the units preparing to deploy to major operations, such as the war in Af­ghani­stan, will remain mission-ready, a top general said Tuesday.

Other units would stand down on a rotating basis, said Gen. Mike Hostage, commander of Air Combat Command at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia.

"The current situation means we're accepting the risk that combat airpower may not be ready to respond immediately to new contingencies as they occur," Hostage said in a statement.

The Air Force didn't immediately release a list of the specific units and bases that would be affected, but it said it would cover some fighters like F-16 Fighting Falcons and F-22 Raptors, and some airborne warning and control aircraft in the U.S., Europe and the Pacific.

In Hawaii the Hawaii Air National Guard, which has F-22 Raptor fighters and KC-135 refueling tankers, saw a two-week flying cutback in March due to funding shortfalls, said Hawaii National Guard spokes­man Lt. Col. Chuck Anthony.

That was due to a continuing resolution that underfunded defense operations — which has since been remedied with new legislation.

But the current sequestration budget cuts don't have an effect on flying time for those aircraft, Anthony said.

The active-duty 535th Airlift squadron, which flies C-17 cargo carriers out of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, did take about a 12 percent cut in flying hours, said Capt. Ben Sakrisson, a spokes­man for the 15th Wing at Hickam.

But with "lean and innovative scheduling of flying hours, our aircrew members are able to retain their flying currency," Sakrisson said.

He said Hawaii-based KC-135 pilots actually had their flying hours increase 28 percent under sequestration based on the latest worldwide allocation of flying hours for tankers, including tanker units on the mainland.

Anthony said one victim of the sequestration budget cuts is the annual Memorial Day flyover at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl, which this year won't see the four-plane formation overhead.

"It would probably be the first time in certainly decades that there has not been a flyover for Memorial Day at Punchbowl," Anthony said.

The Air Force says that on average, aircrews "lose currency" to fly combat commissions within 90 to 120 days of not flying. It generally takes 60 to 90 days to train the crews to mission-ready status.

Retraining grounded units to be ready for missions will require additional funds beyond Air Combat Command's normal budget, according to Air Force officials. The stand-down will remain in effect for the remainder of fiscal year 2013 barring any changes to funding.

For affected units, the Air Force says it will shift its focus to ground training. That includes the use of flight simulators and academic training to maintain basic skills and aircraft knowledge, Air Combat Command spokes­man Maj. Brandon Lingle wrote in an email to The Associated Press.

On the same day, the Navy confirmed that the Blue Angels aerobatic team would be canceling the rest of its season.

Tom Frosch, the Blue Angels' lead pilot and team commander, announced the news late Tuesday at the team's Pensacola Naval Air Station headquarters standing in front of the one of the iconic blue-and-gold jets. Frosch said the news marks the first time since the Korean War that the team would not make the air-show rounds.

"The Navy held off as long as possible with the hope of salvaging some of the season," Frosch said. "We hope we'll be turned back on for 2014."

A Navy spokesman said team members would be allowed to fly minimal hours to maintain flight proficiency in the F/A-18 fighter jets.


Star-Advertiser writer William Cole contributed to this report.

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