January 14, 2015 10:02:47 AM
The 14th Flying Training Wing at Columbus Air Force Base will activate the 81st Fighter Squadron during a ceremony Thursday at Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta, Georgia, and several Columbus residents will have a front-row seat.
The training wing will oversee the 81st as it trains up to 30 Afghan pilots and 90 maintainers on the A-29 aircraft, according to the wing's chief public affairs officer Sonic Johnson. The Afghans will use the training to help protect their homeland.
Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau sponsored a bus ride for 20 invited guests to travel to Valdosta and see Thursday's activation ceremony firsthand. The group, which includes local business people, media members and retired Air Force personnel, left town at 8:30 a.m. today. Mayor Robert Smith and other city officials will also attend Thursday's ceremony, CVB director Nancy Carpenter said.
Carpenter said the local contingent aimed to show community support for Columbus Air Force Base and its commander, Col. John Nichols, in the new mission.
"It's so important for everyone, not only in Columbus and Lowndes County, but in the entire Golden Triangle, to realize the vast importance of supporting and maintaining our Air Force base," Carpenter said. "Plus it makes sense to support the largest employer in Columbus and Lowndes County."
Carpenter said CAFB employs 2,767 personnel, including 1,243 civilians, 957 officers and 507 enlisted men. That comes with a $134 million payroll that Carpenter said would be nearly impossible to replace in the local economy if it ever closes. The base has been close to the chopping block three times in recent years, following federal Base Relocation and Closure reviews that found its surrounding quality of life deficient. Showing clear community support for CAFB's missions and its people, Carpenter said, would help demonstrate how valuable the base is to the area.
"These (base personnel and their families) are people we go to church with, and their children go to school with our children," she said. "This is not just about the money. It's about what the people mean to the community."
Johnson said the Department of Defense is paying for the training mission. In a press release, he said the 81st would ultimately grow to 65 personnel and 25 aircraft. Training will begin next month. The program is set to conclude in 2018.
A CAFB spokesperson said in an email Tuesday the 81st would be the first "geographically separated" squadron under the 14th FTW's command. The spokesperson added that the base appreciated the community support.
"The 14th Flying Training Wing is both excited and honored to welcome the 81st Fighter Squadron at Moody AFB, Georgia, to our team as our first geographically separated flying squadron," the email statement read. "The 81st will provide Afghan pilots and maintainers the skills and knowledge necessary to establish a secure and stable Afghanistan. The support of our community members and leaders on this trip to Moody AFB is just another example of the great community support Columbus is known for and reinforces the 14th FTW vision statement that we are 'the premier pilot training wing and community developing the world's best airmen.'"
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
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