Two F-16 Fighting Falcons from the 309th Fighter Squadron, 56th Fighter Wing, at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., taxi to a hangar at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., on Dec. 7. The 309th's scheduled move from Luke to Holloman has been put on hold until the new budget kicks in. (Senior Airman DeAndre Curtiss / Air Force)
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This time last year, airmen with the 309th Fighter Squadron were planning to pack up and leave Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., and head east to their new home at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M.
But that plan was placed on hold as the Air Force operated under a funding freeze pending passage of the fiscal 2013 defense budget. The federal government is operating under a continuing resolution, set to expire in March, which places a hold on any money that would retire, divest, realign or transfer aircraft.
The fiscal 2013 National Defense Authorization Act was passed by Congress on Dec. 21 and awaits President Obama's signature. That would unfreeze all the Air Force's movement as the service moves forward under its new budget.
For now, the 309th — and other squadrons that were planning to transfer to new bases in 2013 — are in limbo. The Air Force could not provide a list of squadrons waiting for the go-ahead, Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said last summer that the freeze would affect about 250 aircraft.
While waiting for their permanent transfer to Holloman, members of the 309th flew from Luke to Holloman in early December to check out their new digs. The 18 F-16s and 190 personnel spent a week flying 24 sorties a day, giving the crews a chance to see the new flight line and fly in the New Mexico base's unique airspace, said 1st Lt. Stephanie Schonberger, a Holloman spokeswoman. Just north of Holloman is the White Sands Missile Range, 3,200 square miles of open area for the F-16s to fly over.
The aircrews tested airspace, training ranges, base infrastructure and the ability to support the F-16 operations, Schonberger said. The pilots completed instructor pilot upgrade and transition course sorties, along with testing precision and nonprecision inert and live heavyweight munitions on the training ranges, including validating new Oscura Bombing Range scored strafe targets.
The airmen also could see the start of a new hangar and maintenance buildings that will house the 309th when it is finally able to move.
The F-16 squadron will replace an F-22 squadron that will transfer out of Holloman, once the Air Force is allowed to resume squadron transfers. Airmen with the 7th Fighter Squadron, which includes T-38s for training, are supposed to move to Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla.
The F-22s are part of a combat-coded squadron and are ready to deploy on any notice. The new F-16s, however, will be at Holloman for training, which means a higher operational tempo for the base, Schonberger said.
The base still doesn't know when the transition will happen, with the continuing resolution in effect until the defense spending bill is signed into law and the Air Force can proceed with the move.
Work toward the transition is underway at Tyndall, as well. To support the combat-coded F-22 squadron, the base was realigned — from Air Education and Training Command to Air Combat Command — in October.
The F-22 and T-38 transfer is set to bring more than 1,000 airmen to Florida. F-22s had been flying at Tyndall for training since 2004.
The move toward a freeze began in June, when Panetta sent a letter to the House and Senate Armed Services committees saying he had directed the Air Force to hold all cuts in fiscal 2012 with the expectation that Congress would finish the fiscal 2013 budget before Oct. 1, which did not happen. Instead, Congress passed the resolution holding the budgets for federal agencies at 2012 levels.
In the letter, Panetta said that approximately 150 aircraft were set to be transferred, with 98 more set to be retired.