Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said that all but about 500 evacuated airmen will return to Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida or the surrounding area in the next few months as the base continues recovering from Hurricane Michael.
But the airmen and F-22s from the 95th Fighter Squadron will not be among them, at least for now, and it’s uncertain when — or if — they’ll return. And it will take several years before Tyndall is fully recovered from the devastating storm that forced 11,000 airmen and their families to evacuate.
In a teleconference with reporters, Wilson said Tyndall doesn’t have the infrastructure needed for the 95th to resume operations there, and its personnel and aircraft will be moved — at least temporarily — to Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska, and Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii. The 95th has 21 F-22s and 36 active-duty airmen, the Air Force said, and its associated maintenance units have about 500 personnel.
Wilson said the F-22s that had to be left behind and were damaged in the storm will fly again. Most of the 17 damaged F-22s have already left Tyndall, and the final few fighters will fly out by Nov. 6.
She said it has not yet been decided whether the F-22s will be able to return to Tyndall. But for now, at least, the Air Force is not breaking up the 95th, even though it is divided between three locations.
But while years of hard work remain to restore Tyndall, Wilson struck an optimistic tone, and congratulated base commander Col. Brian Laidlaw for the progress that’s been made.
“I’m very pleased we were able to get all of these missions back up and operational within the next one to three months,” Wilson said. "If you had asked me that the Sunday when I was down there after the storm hit, that we would have all but 500 people back at Tyndall and Eglin, I would have found it hard to believe.
Wilson said that nine missions will either return to Tyndall over the next few months, or continue operating there. The 601st Air Operations Center will resume operations no later than Jan. 1, she said. The 601st has more than 800 airmen, Wilson said, and constitutes one of the biggest missions at the base.
The 337th Air Control Squadron will also resume training air battle managers at a reduced rate by Jan. 1, and will be back at full production no later than next summer, the Air Force said.
The Air Force Medical Agency Support team, which provides oversight of medical facilities, the Office of Special Investigations, the 53rd Air-to-Air Weapons Evaluation Group and the Air Force Legal Operations Agency will also resume work at Tyndall. Air Force recruiters will continue operating out of local area offices in the Panama City, Florida, area.
The 823rd Red Horse Squadron, Detachment 1, and the Air Force Civil Engineer Center will also continue their mission at Tyndall.
A press release distributed by the Air Force before the teleconference also said that about 1,500 airmen will resume working at Tyndall in the coming weeks.
Tyndall is temporarily moving the 43rd and 2nd fighter squadrons' F-22 fighter training and T-38 adversary training units to nearby Eglin Air Force Base. And the 372nd Training Squadron, Detachment 4, will move with the F-22 training units to Tyndall.
Academic and simulator facilities will stay at Tyndall to support training requirements, as well as the base’s surviving low observable maintenance facilities.
But Tyndall’s Paul W. Airey Noncommissioned Officer Academy will be temporarily dispersed across four other NCO academy locations: McGhee-Tyson Air National Guard Base in Tennessee; Maxwell Air Force Base’s Gunter Annex in Alabama; Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi; and Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas.
The Air Force will need supplemental funding from Congress to pay for rebuilding Tyndall. But Wilson said Air Force engineers are still going through buildings one-by-one to survey the damage, and that it doesn’t yet have a price tag for those repairs.
The storm has also complicated the Air Force’s plans to move an MQ-9 Reaper squadron to Tyndall as early as 2020. Wilson said it will take several years for Tyndall’s infrastructure to be fully restored, and that a decision on the Reaper squadron has not yet been made.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.