The Air Force evacuated scores of fighter and tanker aircraft Friday to get them out of the path of Hurricane Irma, and prepared other planes for rescue efforts after the storm passes.
Joint Base Charleston in South Carolina was evacuating 27 of its C-17 transport planes to prevent damage. Eleven of the C-17s are relocating to Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, five are going to Travis Air Force Base in California, five are going to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana and six are going to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.
“Each airplane is worth about $213 million. That’s a big bill to pay even if one of them gets damage due to winds or due to storms,” Col. Jimmy Canlas, commander of the 437th Airlift Wing, told Air Force Times on Friday. “We want to get them to safe haven locations.”
Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina was taking similar precautions with its squadrons of F-16s. Fifty of the base’s 79 fighter aircraft departed Shaw Friday ahead of the storm, because the installation did not have enough hangar space to shelter them, spokeswoman 1st Lt. Alannah Staver said.
The base would have evacuated the other 29 jets, but they were not flyable due to needed maintenance or spare parts, Staver said.
“Our other concern is that we don‘t want to consolidate all aircraft in one location,” Staver said, in case storm damage makes the base inoperable.
The hangars previously withstood Hurricane Hugo’s 109 mph winds in 1989 and should be able to shelter the jets from Hurricane Irma, Staver said.
Eleven KC-135s from MacDill Air Force Base in Florida are also relocating. They are going to McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas, said Air Mobility Command spokesman Col. Chris Karns.
Other aircraft were headed to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio to wait out Irma, which was churning along Cuba's northern coast Friday afternoon and is expected to hit Florida early Sunday morning.
The storm has already killed 22 as it tore through the Caribbean. The death toll is expected to rise as rescuers reach some of the hardest-hit areas.
Irma weakened from a Category 5 hurricane to a still-fearsome Category 4 on Friday morning with winds of 155 mph.
Six F-15s from the Jacksonville Air National Guard Base, eight P-8s and six P-3s from Patrol Squadron 30 from Naval Air Station Jacksonville will shelter at Wright Patterson, as will three of Charleston’s C-17s.
The evacuated C-17s won’t just sit on the ground at their new locations, however. They will be tasked with follow-on missions, which can include air evacuations as part of the hurricane recovery efforts, Canlas said.
“The aircraft at Scott Air Force Base are being stationed with aeromedical evacuation crews and are prepared to take folks out that are injured because of the hurricane,” Canlas said.
There are 52 crews working on the evacuations, and roughly 4,000 airmen will participate in that and relief efforts, he said. About 300 will stay behind in Charleston to ensure the infrastructure remains safe so aircraft can get off the ground.
The aircraft evacuation should be done by Saturday, he said.
Some of the aircraft required maintenance, including one C-17 that suffered a bird strike and needed to be repaired.
Canlas said the repair timeline had to be accelerated, and maintenance crews were working around the clock to ensure all of the aircraft were able to fly and be evacuated in time.
Norman Moore, the director of maintenance with the 437th Maintenance Group, said local sorties are canceled when there’s an impending storm.
“We’re doing the pre-flights on the airplanes and fixing the discrepancies to get them out of here in a safe expeditious manner,” Moore said.
The Associated Press and Military Times Pentagon bureau chief Tara Copp contributed to this report.