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Tyndall rises to host first training exercise since Hurricane Michael

Tyndall Air Force Base appears to be coming back to life, as the airmen assigned there prepare for a major live-fire training exercise next month.

The base on the Florida Panhandle was devastated when Hurricane Michael tore through it Oct. 10, damaging F-22 Raptors, QF-16 full-scale aerial targets, hangers, runways and just about every other building on the installation.

But from Dec. 3-14, the base’s 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group will conduct its first post-hurricane Combat Archer exercise, officials announced Tuesday.

Combat Archer is a training operation that evaluates operational fighter squadrons' readiness for combat operations. The program tests all phases of the real-world mission, from weapons loading to air-to-air combat.

It’s “an end-to-end kill-chain evaluation of man, weapon and machine combat in a realistic environment,” according to the Air Force.

F-22s from the 27th Fighter Squadron out of Langley AFB, Virginia, and two F-35s from the 58th Fighter Squadron at Eglin AFB, Florida, will participate in the training. The F-22s and F-35s will be flying out of Eglin AFB, but performing live fire in the warning areas south of Tyndall AFB.

The event will be supported by Tyndall’s 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron, which will launch and control QF-16 aerial targets. Boeing recently delivered a new QF-16 to the squadron, also marking an important milestone on the road to Tyndall’s recovery.

The 82nd ATS currently has 18 QF-16s, six of which are unmanned, but all of them are modified to be flown remotely, the press statement said.

The initial assessment of the aftermath of Hurricane Michael was bleak. But recovery has gone better than some predicted.

The Air Force recently announced that the 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group’s mission, and Combat Archer, will remain at Tyndall.

Additionally, the base has built back up to more than 2,000 personnel, nearly half of whom are originally from Tyndall, the base said in a news release Wednesday.

Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson announced earlier this month that a number of important missions will resume at Tyndall AFB in the next few months, while some others will shift to other locations for the time being.

An F-15 Eagle fires an AIM-7 Sparrow medium range air-to-air missile during a Combat Archer air-to-air weapons system evaluation program mission. (Master Sgt. Michael Ammons/Air Force)
An F-15 Eagle fires an AIM-7 Sparrow medium range air-to-air missile during a Combat Archer air-to-air weapons system evaluation program mission. (Master Sgt. Michael Ammons/Air Force)

All but approximately 500 airmen will return to the Florida Panhandle.

“We are focused on taking care of our airmen and their families and ensuring the resumption of operations. These decisions were important first steps to provide stability and certainty,” Wilson said on Nov. 2, during a teleconference with reporters. “We’re working hard to return their lives to normalcy as quickly as possible.”

Wilson said the units that will remain at Tyndall include the 601st Air Force Operations Center, the 337th Air Control Squadron, the Air Force Medical Agency Support team, Air Force Office of Special Investigations, the 53rd Air-to-Air Weapons Evaluation Group, the Air Force Legal Operations Agency, the 823rd Red Horse Squadron, Detachment 1, and the Air Force Civil Engineer Center.

Airmen and F-22s from the 95th Fighter Squadron will not be among them, at least for now.

Tyndall doesn’t have the infrastructure needed for the 95th to resume operations there for the time being, Wilson said.

Instead, personnel and aircraft will be split between 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.

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