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AF lifts grounding of combat squadrons, Thunderbirds

Jul. 15, 2013 - 11:10AM   |  
The  Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, the Thunderbirds, perform the Diamond Pass and Review during the 2012 Defenders of Liberty Air Show at Barksdale Air Force Base, La.
The Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, the Thunderbirds, perform the Diamond Pass and Review during the 2012 Defenders of Liberty Air Show at Barksdale Air Force Base, La. (Staff Sgt. Amber Ashcraft / Air Force)
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After about three months on the ground, one-third of the Air Force’s combat fleet has received more funding and will start flying again.

Air Combat Command announced today that it has restored $208 million as part of a $1.8 billion reprogramming allocation authorized by Congress. This additional funding will re-instate training and test operations for squadrons in Air Combat Command, along with those assigned to U.S. Air Forces Europe and Pacific Air Forces, including the Air Warfare Center's Weapons School, aggressors and the Thunderbirds aerial demonstration team.

The funding will only affect operations until the end of the fiscal year.

In all, 16 fighter, bomber and AWACS squadrons that had stood down will begin to return to full combat mission ready status starting today. This includes three aggressor squadrons that will resume support of air combat training and operational testing. Active-duty pilots assigned to associate Air National Guard units will resume their training, flights focused on operational test and evaluation will resume, ACC spokesman Master Sgt. James Law said.

At Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., instructors in the weapons school will resume training to maintain their currency in advanced tactics, and the Thunderbirds will resume training flights.

"Since April we’ve been in a precipitous decline with regard to combat readiness," ACC Commander Gen. Mike Hostage said in a release. "Returning to flying is an important first step, but what we have ahead of us is a measured climb to recovery."

Hostage said that the funding for the return to flight will come at the expense of future capability. This will mean less money will be available to recapitalize and modernize the fleet.

"We are using investment dollars to pay current operational bills, and that approach is not without risk to our long-term effectiveness," he said. "We can't mortgage our future. America relies on the combat airpower we provide, and we need to be able to continue to deliver it."

Thunderbirds commander Lt. Col. Greg Moseley said that his team heard the news this morning, and will spend the weeks focusing on maintenance and getting their F-16s ready. Pilots will begin flying next week, with enough funding for one to two flights per week for each pilot. The pilots will focus on regaining basic qualifications and regaining currency, practicing basic airmanship in one and two ship flights.

ACC leadership decided that the Thunderbirds will retain the same team for next calendar year. The team will focus on training for the rest of this fiscal year and will not begin aerial demonstrations until next calendar year. It will take about three and a half to four months for the crews to be ready to fly demonstrations, Moseley said.

"The only thing I'm concerned about is safety," Moseley said. "If it takes longer, it takes longer."

In April, Air Combat Command announced that 17 combat squadrons will be grounded due to sequestration, along with a drop in readiness for additional squadrons. Sequestration cut the Air Force’s budget for flying hours by $591 million, meaning that the service was forced to distribute 241,496 flying hours across all combat squadrons for the end of the fiscal year. The affected units stood down immediately in April, or on a rolling basis after returning from deployments.

Air Force leaders warned Congress and the public that the budget cuts would force combat squadrons to lose readiness depending on how long the stand down lasted. Lt. Gen. Burton Field, the deputy chief of staff for operations, plans and requirements, said in April that crews would be out of funding in 45 to 60 days, causing a "significant recovery problem."

The total time required to regain currency will vary based on aircrew and weapons system, Law said.

"The longer a unit has not been flying, the longer and more expensive the process is to return aircrews to full combat readiness," he said. " On average, the number of months a unit is stood down is equal to the time required to stand a unit back up; however, in a few cases units may require up to six months to be fully combat mission ready."

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