HAMPTON -- Members of the 27th Fighter Squadron returned Wednesday to Langley Air Force Base after a deployment to Japan that overcome a number of challenges.
Learning to work with Japanese pilots at Kadena Air Base. Check.
Facing a couple of typhoons. Check.
Dealing with budget cuts back home. That took a bit of creativity.
The 27th deployed to Kadena earlier this year without their F-22 Raptor stealth fighters. That's because the 94th Fighter Squadron, also based at Langley, was already in Kadena with its Raptors. At the time, the Air Force was dealing with budget cuts imposed by sequestration, causing major headaches across the military.
To save money, the Air Force kept the dozen Raptors from the 94th at Kadena and did a simple -- and cheaper -- manpower swap. Personnel from the 27th went to Kadena to handle those jets, and members of the 94th came home.
The 27th and the 94th belong to the 1st Fighter Wing commanded by Col. Kevin Huyck, who waited for the squadron in a hangar Wednesday afternoon along with spouses and children.
"We wanted to give both fighter squadrons the chance to support the theater out there," he said. "By leaving the jets in place, we actually saved our Air Force quite a bit of money."
Another plus, he said, was learning more about the Raptor by keeping it deployed for an extended period of time -- the better part of a year. The maintenance statistics for this extended stay look great, according to Huyck.
"You get the true test of what this aircraft can do," he said.
He said it wasn't a problem for pilots of the 27th to climb into the cockpit of a Raptor that belonged to the 94th. It wasn't like driving the neighbor's car and having to adjust the seat and the mirrors.
The standardization between aircraft is so stringent, Huyck said, that "any qualified F-22 pilot that steps into an F-22 can execute the mission."
In this case, the mission meant training with pilots of the Japanese Self Defense Force, which fly older F-4s and F-15s, as well as U.S. Navy ships and aircraft. The American pilots had to overcome the language barrier and develop tactical coordination. They started with smaller exercises and worked up to larger and more complex scenarios.
For spouses and kids waiting anxiously in the hangar, the particulars of the deployment took a back seat to the actual homecoming.
Penny Sleichter held her 16-month-old son, Luke, while waiting for her husband, Tech. Sgt. Jason Sleichter. The couple communicated via Skype every morning. She made sure Luke watched, "which has been helpful, instead of forgetting who daddy is."
"When he sees him in person, I don't know what's going to happen," she said, laughing.
Her husband is a 15-year Air Force veteran, but they've only been married for three years, so this is Penny's first deployment. Other than news of a couple of typhoons in the region, she said it hasn't been worrisome.
Kelsey Abbot, 4, held a sign while waiting for her mom, Staff Sgt. Ashley Abbott, a medic. Ashley's mom, Donya Summers, said this was her daughter's second deployment, and it's been a bit rough on Kelsey.
Still, the constant lines of communication between Japan and the U.S. allowed them to talk regularly. Donya's husband, a Navy veteran, told her it was much better than if Ashley had been stationed on a ship at sea.
In fact, the homecoming of the 27th Fighter Squadron was unlike a ship arriving at Naval Station Norfolk or an Army unit returning to Fort Eustis in Newport News.
It happened in phases. Last weekend, the 12 Raptors flew back to Langley in two waves of six, Huyck said. Early Wednesday morning, a giant C-17 landed at Langley with cargo and about 30 personnel.
Then Wednesday afternoon, a chartered aircraft brought back about 250 personnel, who climbed into a bus and rode across the base to greet family and friends.
After getting off the bus, Senior Airman Dave Gartland said the manpower swap in Japan went smoothly.
"Each squadron handles their jets differently, but leadership had it together," he said.
As he greeted his girlfriend, Rebecca Owens, he added: "I'll tell you what's really good, though, is being back home."