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Furloughs hit training, education in first week of shutdown

Oct. 3, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
The Air Force Academy suspended 20 percent of its nearly 300 courses and grounded all flying operations at the 306th Flying Training Group after it furloughed more than 1,000 employees because of the government shutdown.
The Air Force Academy suspended 20 percent of its nearly 300 courses and grounded all flying operations at the 306th Flying Training Group after it furloughed more than 1,000 employees because of the government shutdown. (Brennan Linsley / The Associated Press)
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The Air Force’s training and education programs took some of the most evident hits in the first week of the government shutdown.

The Air Force Academy immediately suspended 20 percent of its nearly 300 courses and grounded all flying operations at the 306th Flying Training Group after it furloughed more than 1,000 employees, more than two-thirds of its staff.

Air University was likewise forced to delay the start of its next Senior Noncomissioned Officer Academy class from Oct. 7 to Oct. 21 because most temporary duty travel has been suspended.

Twenty-six training or test flying units stood down due to the shutdown, as did nine other combat-coded flying units. And tuition assistance for classes starting on or after Oct. 1 was suspended until further notice.

In an Oct. 3 press conference, Air Force Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson said the shutdown had already shown just how crucial civilian employees are to the Air Force.

“It’s unfortunate that there’s a bureaucratic term for our colleagues of ‘nonessential,’ ” Johnson said. “It couldn’t be more wrong. We very much miss our civilian colleagues. We miss their contributions, and we’re having to learn to back them up in ways we haven’t had to do before. We rely more and more on our civilian workforce. We look forward to having them back as soon as we can.”

In all, roughly 104,000 civilian employees — some 61 percent of the Air Force’s civilian staff — were furloughed when the government shut down Oct. 1.

Johnson said that if the shutdown continues, it will have even more disruptive effects. If the shutdown drags on and 306th does not resume flying training missions, Johnson fears cadets’ flying skills will become rusty. Cadets need to keep their appreciation for the discipline of flying operations and their understanding of how everything from air traffic control to on-the-ground crew members do their job, she said. And they need to maintain their personal preparation and mindset for flying, she said.

“We hope that extra edge will not get lost by curtailing the training,” Johnson said. “If this is of short duration, we think we can recover. [But in a long shutdown,] it goes without saying that if someone loses training time, it would give them less advantage than they might have had.”

Johnson said that the academy had no choice but to suspend almost 60 courses, because they were taught by civilians with specialized capabilities that couldn’t be covered by anyone else. Some specialty courses were also combined, she said.

“If we don’t have anyone to teach a course, we have to suspend it,” Johnson said.

But suspension of those courses, if it continues, could potentially hurt cadets who need those courses to graduate, Johnson said. The academy also needs to offer certain courses to maintain its accreditation requirements, she said, and the class suspensions could hurt its accreditation and ability to award bachelor’s degrees to cadets.

“We’re taking close accounting of that as we go along,” Johnson said.

The academy also relied on its now-furloughed civilians to process documentation on cadet performance, track their grades, assign the graduation order of merit, and other “nuts-and-bolts” activities, Johnson said. The academy’s cadet library, tutoring centers and other study centers are also closed, as are the fitness center, base library and commissary.

Even conducting basic functions, such as cleaning the academy’s facilities, became unexpectedly complicated since contracts for custodial services were suspended, Johnson said.

The academy has teams trying to identify those surprise consequences that arise from losing vital people, she said.

“Complex organizations are not always aware of who has the contract for toilet paper,” Johnson said. “We found that out pretty fast and fixed it. We can [clean facilities] ourselves, but someone has to make the contract” for the right cleaning supplies.

While the academy originally thought its Oct. 5 football game against Navy would have to be canceled, a donation from USAA allowed the team to make the trip — but the academy wouldn’t send cheerleaders, cadets to walk on the field, or Johnson herself.

At other commands

Other bases and commands throughout the Air Force are trying to adjust to a world without most of its civilians, and help its airmen who are affected by the furloughs.

Peterson Air Force Base’s 21st Space Wing in Colorado said in an Oct. 3 Facebook post that many of its families who are affected by the furloughs are worried about how they will continue to pay for on-base child care. Peterson pledged to work with parents to provide credit for unused child care, delay billing for some families, and hold slots for other families.

“Our programs will continue to offer quality care to children, while at the same time accommodating financial needs of our families who may struggle financially due to the government shutdown,” Peterson said.

The Air Force Global Strike Command said it furloughed almost 80 percent of its 2,465 civilian employees, forcing it to scale back or close down functions such as medical, logistics, contracting and communications. But Global Strike Command spokesman Lt. Col. John Sheets said bomber units will continue to fly to support missions such as continuous bomber presence rotations in the Pacific, and continue to maintain operations, maintenance and security at its three missile wings.

The Air Force Space Command furloughed nearly 4,900 of its more than 7,400 civilian employees. But Space Command spokeswoman Col. Kathleen Cook said the command will continue day-to-day satellite operations to maintain the Global Position System, Space-Based Infrared System, and Advanced Extremely High Frequency programs, which are performed by military members. Other missions were transferred from the civilian workforce to active-duty military to keep them running. And civilians involved in critical launch activities were exempted from furlough.

Air Force Special Operations Command also said that while some support services at Hurlburt Field in Florida and Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico were halted due to the furlough of roughly 1,200 of its 1,560 civilian employees, it will continue to fly operations in both combat-coded and training units for national security-related missions.

The Air Force has canceled all new temporary duty travel, except for travel in direct support of the war in Afghanistan and other travel directly related to the safety of life and protection of property, as well as foreign relations. Space Command said permanent change-of-station activities already underway will continue, but new PCS moves will not be started during the shutdown unless they are also in support of an excepted activity. AFSOC and Space Command said they are still conducting performance reports during the shutdown.

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