The first mission of Columbus Air Force Base is training pilots.
Student pilots come from around the world to the hometown base that began as a pilot training post for the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942 during World War II. The base houses the 14th Flying Training Wing of Air Education. Only two other Air Force bases in the nation offer the same training — Vance Air Force Base in Enid, Okla., and Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio, Texas.
Air Force lieutenants and their training officers work 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week, said Rick “Sonic” Johnson, public affairs chief at the base and retired Air Force pilot.
“This is the bench strength of our leaders,” he said, referring to the fresh-faced lieutenants, one of whom could very well become an Air Force chief of staff.
Johnson said the Air Force has a tradition of choosing pilots as chief of staff.
Current Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz is a command pilot who flew the airlift missions out of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War.
The base’s three-fold mission is to produce pilots, advance airmen and “feed the fight” by preparing airmen for eventual deployment.
Every three weeks, a new class of student pilots begins training, Johnson said. The base operates its training facility with efficiency in mind.
“Nothing sits idle waiting for a class to finish,” he said. The base runs 15 classes annually. Last year, 335 pilots earned their wings at Columbus. Each day, about 350 sorties, or missions, are carried out by the students and their instructors at the busiest air base in the nation.
Students spend a month in ground school. Then, they begin flying the basic trainer, a T-6 Texan II. After six months in the T-6 jet, they make a choice whether to fly cargo planes or bombers.
Those interested in carrying weight move to the T-1A Jayhawk, a military modified twin-engine jet. Each aircraft has three seats in a row so the instructor can teach two student pilots at a time.
Johnson said training in pairs allows the students to help each other remember and review what the instructor showed them. It is also another efficiency.
Those interested in fighter jets move to the T-38C. It is a two-crew craft for either student and instructor pilot or student and navigator.
He said the T-38C requires pilots to learn defensive maneuvering and flying in formation, which he likened to “marching in the air in a group.”
“This is where we throw the enemy in there,” he said.
Students practice electronic bomb drops and zooming through narrow corridors of sky. Those corridors are mapped into the base’s designated air space, Johnson said.
That air space includes 37,000 square miles, the size of South Carolina. The Federal Aviation Administration is the traffic cop of the sky. Commercial traffic is parallel to the corridors the student pilots are using.
“We’re playing flag football on the shoulder of the interstate,” he said.
Students spend six months in specialized aircraft. Those who choose to fly helicopters leave the Columbus air base to finish their last six months at Fort Rucker, Ala.
After 13 months, it’s time for wings and aircraft-specific training.
Immediately after graduation, Johnson said, all graduates hear a presentation on base history, what happens at the base beyond their pilot training and the economic impact of the base.
In fiscal year 2010, the base had an economic impact of $257 million.
They leave with an understanding of the role the base plays in the community. He said they also leave with an understanding of the base’s history in pilot training and their place in that history.
Students have the opportunity to meet people from other countries who come for pilot and leadership training through the international ambassador program.
A report from 2011 shows airmen participate in symposia and advanced training that can benefit Columbus. Troops completed an active shooter exercise to train them to respond to school shootings or other incidents involving an armed person.
During the recent Columbus High School bomb threat, a dog trained to sniff explosive devices came from the base to inspect the school.
The base’s fire department offers mutual assistance at Golden Triangle Regional Airport.
Base personnel also train air traffic controllers.
Feed the fight
Part of CAFB’s mission includes “feeding the fight” through its pilot training program, preparing airmen for future deployment and contributing to the U.S. military effort as a whole.
However, more than 70 pilots based at Columbus are already deployed in combat theaters, Johnson said.
They may be behind the controls of a fighter jet, refueling fighter jets or transporting troops and cargo.
Students who began their training at Columbus but went to Fort Rucker may be ferrying special operations troops to covert missions.
Active-duty pilots serve as instructors along with members of the Air Force Reserve and retired military who are employed as civil service instructors.
Johnson said pilots on base are subject to a one-year deployment period during which they are advised against planning a significant life event because they may be sent at a moment’s notice.
The base’s future
Johnson said he doesn’t foresee the base’s role changing because it is so single-minded and one of only three bases that trains student pilots.
One of the training aircraft will change, though. The T-38C will be replaced, he said. The 50-year-old craft is simply wearing out from use. The Air Force is taking requests for proposals for a new fighter training jet.
With the shelving of the NASA space shuttle program, the base will no longer serve as a refueling stop for the plane carrying the spaceship. Johnson said Atlantis landed piggyback at Columbus six times on refueling stops between Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., and Cape Canaveral, Fla.
The challenge to the base, he said, is to continue its mission in a way that will conform to expected budget cuts. Personnel are mindful every day that they are spending taxpayers’ money.
The community is a component in the base’s success, said Gen. Gary North, commander of Pacific Air Forces, during his visit last week.
He thanked community members during the Base Community Council luncheon for their support of the air base families, especially during deployment.
“We know that you don’t have to do this,” he said.
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