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Air Force Times' top stories of 2012

Jan. 3, 2013 - 09:40AM   |   Last Updated: Jan. 3, 2013 - 09:40AM  |  
The number of airmen forced out of the service for failing their PT test has soared since tougher standards were implemented two years ago.
The number of airmen forced out of the service for failing their PT test has soared since tougher standards were implemented two years ago. ()
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Gen. Janet C. Wolfenbarger, head of Air Force Materiel Command, became the Air Force's first female four-star general when she was confirmed by the Senate in the spring. Wolfenbarger was among the first group of 157. (Alan Lessig / Staff)
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ordered F-22s to fly at low altitudes and within safe landing distance of runways on May 15 after complaints that pilots and maintainers were suffering symptoms of oxygen deprivation. (Master Sgt. Jeremy Lock / Air Force)
The Air Force got a new leader in August when Gen. Mark Welsh, replaced Gen. Norton Schwartz, above, as chief of staff. (Mike Morones / Staff)
Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force; and Michael B. Donley, Secretary of the Air Force, testify before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the FY 2012 Air Force budget in Washington, D.C. (Army Times)

From a new chief of staff to the MTI scandal, here's the biggest stories from 2012:

Schwartz makes way for Welsh

The Air Force got a new leader in August when Gen. Mark Welsh replaced Gen. Norton Schwartz as chief of staff. Welsh, a 1976 Air Force Academy graduate with 3,400 flying hours, was commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe when he was nominated to become chief. At his confirmation hearing, Welsh acknowledged that the Air Force's relationship with Congress had become severely strained over the service's plan to cut spending by retiring aircraft and personnel, mostly from the Air National Guard. When asked what he thought the Air Force's standing was with Congress, Welsh replied: "I believe there is some concern, and I would tell you that it's fairly widespread from the opportunities I have had to meet with members of this committee. …I think it's something that we need to pay a lot of attention to." In addition to restoring trust with Congress, Welsh also sought to heal the rift that had developed between the active-duty Air Force and the Guard and Reserve over proposed budget cuts.

An end to Blues Monday

A policy wildly unpopular with airmen effectively came to an end in 2012 when Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh rescinded the servicewide requirement that most airmen wear their dress blue uniforms every Monday. On Nov. 28, Welsh allowed commanders of the Air Force's major commands to decide whether to continue with "Blues Monday," a policy dating to his predecessor, Gen. Norton Schwartz. Most airmen never warmed to the policy. When Air Force Times asked readers in August 2011 what the service's dumbest rule was, several cited Blues Monday.

PT-related discharges soar

The number of airmen forced out of the service for failing their PT test has soared since tougher standards were implemented two years ago. As of early November, 1,319 active-duty airmen had been discharged for not meeting fitness standards. That's a 400 percent increase since the new standards were put in place in 2010. Most of those discharged for failing the PT test have been enlisted. A jet mechanic who did not want to be identified said many enlisted airmen such as maintainers and security forces simply don't have the time to work out. "Maintainers and cops are constantly working long and strange hours, while many other squadrons work set hours and can, most of the time, work PT into a routine," the airman said. Meanwhile, in December, Staff Sgt. Coty Ferguson was acquitted after a court-martial in which he was accused of intentionally failing his PT test so he could force the Air Force to discharge him with nearly $10,000 in involuntary separation pay. While a military jury acquitted Ferguson, he must retake his PT test in January.

The F-22's turbulent skies

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ordered F-22s to fly at low altitudes and within safe landing distance of runways on May 15 after complaints that pilots and maintainers were suffering symptoms of oxygen deprivation. The move came shortly after two F-22 pilots with the Virginia Air National Guard told CBS "60 Minutes" that they did not feel safe flying the aircraft. All F-22s had been grounded for four months in 2011 but resumed service that September; about a dozen unexplained incidents involving hypoxia-like symptoms followed. In July, the Air Force announced that a valve that connects the F-22's onboard oxygen supply to a tube that inflates the vest protecting pilots from high G-forces was to blame. But in September, some House lawmakers still expressed skepticism that the problem was solved.

Global Hawks get a reprieve

The Defense Department wanted to kill the Global Hawk Block 30 program because it felt the unmanned surveillance aircraft had become too expensive, but Congress restored all of the 18 aircraft targeted for cuts in the fiscal 2013 budget. In January, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said the department wanted to continue to use the U-2 spy plane instead of the Global Hawk Block 30, which at $215 million per aircraft had "priced itself out of the niche" of aerial reconnaissance. However, Congress felt the Block 30 was too expensive to be discarded, so it required the service to continue flying it through the end of 2014.

The AF's first female 4-star

Gen. Janet C. Wolfenbarger, head of Air Force Materiel Command, became the Air Force's first female four-star general when she was confirmed by the Senate in the spring. Wolfenbarger was among the first group of 157 female cadets to attend the Air Force Academy in 1976. She had previously served as AFMC's vice commander before becoming a military deputy in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, overseeing $40 billion in Air Force programs annually. In September, she told Air Force Times what her priorities are for AFMC.

"The command's biggest challenge moving forward will be providing required support to the war fighter in an environment where money is tight," she said in an email. "I contend that while the budget environment is challenging, it also can and should be embraced as an opportunity to figure out ways to accomplish our missions more efficiently and more effectively."

The skirmish over A-10s

The Air Force planned to retire 102 A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft this fiscal year, roughly 29 percent of its A-10 inventory, but Congress made the service restore two of the five squadrons it wanted to eliminate. Three of the squadrons the Air Force wanted to stand down came from the Air National Guard and a fourth from the Reserve. Ultimately, Congress passed a defense budget that eliminated the A-10s at the Guard's 188th Fighter Wing at Little Rock, Ark., and the Reserve 917th Fighter Group at Barksdale Air Force Base, La. However, the Indiana Air National Guard's 122nd Fighter Wing and the Michigan Air National Guard's 127th Wing kept theirs.

Reining in F-35 spending

After a tense year during which an Air Force general officer lashed out at lead contractor Lockheed Martin, the Defense Department and the contractor reached an agreement in December to purchase 32 F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets. The F-35 program has been a reverse role model in cost overruns and delays. The Air Force plans to buy 1,763 F-35s over 25 years. Each plane costs between $105 million and $125 million. Initial operating capability has been pushed back from 2013 to 2018, forcing the Air Force to put more money into aging fighters such as the F-15C Eagle. In September, Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, who had been tapped to lead the F-35 program, called relations between DoD and Lockheed Martin "the worst I have ever seen." Experts who looked at ways the Pentagon could trim spending recommended curtailing F-35 purchases or canceling the program altogether. Still, the Air Force believes the aircraft will be crucial in coming years because of its diverse capabilities.

Brouhaha over Guard cuts

Air Force leaders such as then-Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz and Secretary Michael Donley endured a civil war between the active-duty force and the Air National Guard from February onward over proposed cuts to personnel and aircraft. In the end, Congress reversed most of the Guard cuts. Most of the airmen and a good deal of the aircraft that the Air Force wanted to cut this fiscal year came from the Guard because the service felt the active-duty force had taken most of the hits in previous drawdowns. But the Guard felt it was being unfairly targeted, and state and federal lawmakers fought for every local Guard unit slated to lose people or aircraft. By July, it was clear that the Air Force's plan was "simply not executable," Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said at his confirmation hearing. By December, lawmakers agreed on a budget that restored 4,100 airmen from the Guard that had been slated to be cut. Congress also created a National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force that will look into the appropriation of force structure.

Ever-expanding MTI scandal

So far, 12 military training instructors at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland have been accused of misconduct with trainees ranging from improper contact over social media to rape. A report from an independent investigation into basic military training found that safeguards meant to protect trainees had eroded over time; leadership overlooked the issue and MTIs were given total control of recruits. "The corruptive elements of power tend to increase over time," Gen. Edward Rice, head of Air Education and Training Command, told Air Force Times in November. "The longer you've had it, the more you're susceptible to it, the more you start to believe the rules don't apply to you." The investigation recommended 46 changes to basic military training, including making MTI duty mandatory. But Rice also acknowledged it will take time to create a culture in which instructors will speak up when they see fellow trainers abusing recruits.

Cody to take over for Roy

In February, Chief Master Sgt. James Cody will become the Air Force's senior enlisted leader, replacing current Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Roy, who is retiring. Cody, currently command chief at Air Education and Training Command, was selected from five finalists. He wants to get on the road to see airmen downrange and elsewhere. "I want to hear what's working for them, so we can help them keep doing those things," Cody said. "I also need to know what's impeding their ability to be productive and see if we can't tackle those challenges and make it better for them."

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