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440th Airlift Wing Makes Last Paratroop Drop

A C-130 H2 transport aircraft from the 440th Airlift Wing stationed on Pope AFB, North Carolina, flying over North Carolina, Dec. 2008. (U.S. Air Force photo)
A C-130 H2 transport aircraft from the 440th Airlift Wing stationed on Pope AFB, North Carolina, flying over North Carolina, Dec. 2008. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The 440th Airlift Wing has dropped its last paratroopers into the skies above Fort Bragg.

The Air Force Reserve wing, slated for inactivation later this year, quietly conducted it's last airborne operation with Fort Bragg soldiers Wednesday.

As the sun set, both literally and figuratively, on the wing's mission to support Bragg troops, about 330 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers were dropped from one of the wing's remaining C-130H planes.

After a nearly two year fight to save the wing, many believe the battle is over and the 440th -- first slated to be closed in the 2015 Air Force budget -- will be inactivated this fall.

Despite several efforts in Congress to have the decision reconsidered, the remaining members of the wing seem resigned to defeat.

With dwindling manpower, the wing has been unable to keep all of its planes in the air and now sends planes off-site to conduct some maintenance because there aren't enough airmen to support the unit.

With those shrinking resources in mind, Wednesday was expected to be the last time the wing would participate in the Joint Airborne/Air Transportability Training program.

The JA/ATT is how the Air Force supports Army operations, not only on Fort Bragg but across the force.

Through JA/ATT, airborne units on Fort Bragg make a training request. And Air Force units can choose to support the training.

With the 440th no longer participating, all of the airborne training at Fort Bragg will now be conducted by outside air crews, who may come from as close as Charleston, South Carolina, or as far as Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska.

Col. Karl A. Schmitkons, commander of the 440th Airlift Wing, flew the final JA/ATT mission for the wing.

He said the mission was far from typical and that airmen treated it as a special occasion, even if there was no formal acknowledgment of such.

Noting the strong bond between airmen and soldiers at Fort Bragg, Schmitkons said it was somber knowing the wing wouldn't support more jumps in the future.

"I really enjoy working with the Army," he said.

Schmitkons said working with airborne forces provides unique opportunities for Air Force pilots who don't man fighter jets or bombers.

"These guys are the pointy end of the spear," the colonel said as a line of paratroopers loaded into a C-130. "This is as close as I can come to putting war power on the enemy."

Schmitkons noted the final JA/ATT mission was roughly 72 years since the 440th made its first airborne training flight on Fort Bragg, at the time during preparations for D-Day.

The mission was also nearly 30 years since the colonel's own first flight carrying Fort Bragg troops.

"It's kind of fitting," he said.

For most of the soldiers, the jump was likely uneventful. Few knew of the significance to the 440th.

But some did.

During a jumpmaster brief with members of the air crew before the operation, the deputy commander of Fort Bragg, Maj. Gen. Jefforey A. Smith, stood with Schmitkons.

Several 82nd Airborne jumpmasters approached the wing commander to shake hands and give thanks.

Since June 2007, when the 440th arrived at what was then Pope Air Force Base as part of base realignment, the wing has dropped more than 103,000 paratroopers and nearly 1.8 million pounds of cargo on more than 820 training missions.

Most of that work has been in support of the 82nd Airborne Division, 18th Airborne Corps, and other forces on Fort Bragg, including Air Force units.

At one time, the 440th supported more than a third of all airborne training missions on Fort Bragg.

In 2015 alone, the wing carried nearly 22,000 paratroopers.

But that number has shrunk considerably this year, as the wing has been working with fewer airmen.

The one-time 1,200-man wing now has about 550 airmen, officials said.

And their share of Fort Bragg training has also shrunk, accounting for about 28 percent of training missions at the home of the airborne, officials said.

But Air Force leaders have pledged that support to Fort Bragg units would not falter without the wing.

Critics of the decision to close the 440th have questioned that commitment, citing current training requests at Fort Bragg.

For every five missions requested by Fort Bragg units through the JA/ATT program, one has been filled by the 440th, two have been filled by outside air crews and two have gone unfilled.

A spokeswoman for the 440th, Maj. Lisa Ray, said Air Force officials do not believe the number of unfilled missions will rise without the unit, even as Army leaders on post push for more airborne training.

Ray said Fort Bragg leaders can use advance planning through JA/ATT to help fill gaps left by the wing.

Critics have also questioned the savings from inactivating the wing.

Air Force leaders have said the decision to shutter the unit was made due to a need to reduce spending by $20 billion.

But some airmen, speaking anonymously, have questioned how much of those savings can be made from closing the 440th.

At the same time, Air Force leaders have declined to comment on the costs of bringing in outside crews to replace the hometown wing.

Ray said the JA/ATT process does not focus on costs alone.

Air Force leaders, meanwhile, have said closing the wing was the best decision given their options, which are limited by Congress's refusal to approve another round of base realignment and closure.

For Wednesday's flights, the 440th was scheduled to drop soldiers from two C-130s.

But maintenance issues kept one plane grounded.

Instead, Schmitkons and the rest of his crew agreed to fly longer than originally planned to ensure every paratrooper was able to jump, making repeated return trips to Green Ramp to load soldiers.

Before the flights, Schmitkons said the mission marked the end of an era in which the 440th's biggest customer was Fort Bragg soldiers.

The unit won't stop flying, he said, but will instead focus on other missions.

"The only thing we won't be doing is personnel drops," Schmitkons said. "My goal now is to make sure air crews and rest of wing are ready -- takeoffs, landings, other training. Now we're working for us instead of the Army."

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