AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy (AFNS) -- Pilots in the 555th Fighter Squadron are overcoming various challenges as they return to flying status after a three-month hiatus from the cockpit due to sequestration.
In what the 31st Operations Group commander describes as a "crushing blow to readiness," the 555th FS pilots now require a minimum four to six months of retraining before returning to combat mission ready status, according to Col. David Walker. "We fly very advanced airplanes and our country expects us to win every battle we fight," said Walker. "In order to do that we have to practice, practice, practice."
The 555th FS was ordered to stand down April 9 as part of an effort to fly 45,000 fewer training hours through the end of September. Until now, the air crews have performed ground training, worked on flight simulators and studied to maintain basic skills and knowledge of their aircraft. Recent congressional action made peacetime dollars available from overseas contingency operations reprogramming. On July 12, the Air Force Council approved Air Combat Command's use of $208 million to restore flying hours for affected units, including the two and a half fighter squadrons in USAFE-AFRICA. For rookie Capt. Robbie Glenn, 555th FS wingman with 177 flying hours, his excitement in returning to the cockpit was temporary, as he says the damage to his career will be felt for years.
"I was extremely excited and happy to be doing what I came here to do," said Glenn. "However, sequestration has definitely had a negative impact on my combat readiness. I am nowhere near the level of proficiency I should be at, and I feel like I'm restarting the process in some areas." Glen says the goals he set for his career path have now been sidelined and have put him at a disadvantage with other young wingmen.
"We are behind on our normal career progression," said Glenn, who has aspirations for weapons school. "Our peers have been flying this whole time, reaching the milestones required for upgrades. Young wingmen in grounded squadrons were left in the dust, and they will be fighting their whole career to get the hours required to achieve a normal timeline. Without flying, our career development was put on pause." Maj. Michael Hurt, 555th FS assistant director of operations, has seen firsthand the impact of sequestration on the pilots. He relates the grounding to a high school football team playing in the regional championship, but being told they can't touch a football for two months prior to the game.
"You are going to lose your proficiency. We have young pilots who have their lives on hold, while their peers are moving on," said Hurt. "All these positions -- as they progress through their career -- are being shut down. These compounding factors are all going to be weighing heavily on the pilots with five to nine years of experience, and they have a decision to make. Some will say, 'I might as well get out and fly for a civilian airline.' This will have a lasting effect."
Despite the upcoming challenges that the squadron may face, Hurt says he tries to remain positive.
"You have to remind the junior pilots that the pendulum always swings," said Hurt. "Some days you are going to fly more, some days you will fly less. You just hope that in the end state it balances back out and that people make the right decisions and do the right thing. That's what you have to hope and that's what you remind the young guys." As the Triple Nickel pilots return to the skies to regain their combat ready status, their commander, Lt. Col. John Peterson, urges a crawl, walk and run mentality.
"Flying an F-16 is not difficult. However, getting back to a full-up combat mission ready rate, being able to employ that aircraft as an advanced weapons system, in a complex dynamic environment, can be very dangerous," said Peterson, who has more than 2,600 flying hours in the F-16 Fighting Falcon and 750 combat hours. "One of my biggest concerns is that we crawl, walk, run, so that we don't end up falling forward and hurting somebody or breaking our assets and resources." While pilots work to regain their certifications and proficiency, they also have to deal with the uncertainty of the fiscal budget for 2014 and whether or not their flying hours will be cut again.
"Everything comes at a cost," said Peterson. "However, when you go to war, you don't just want to barely win. You don't want to win by one point at the last second in overtime. When we set our objectives and we set our goals very high, we should win explicitly and overwhelmingly against our enemies, because the cost is America's sons and daughters, their lives and families."