VALDOSTA, Ga. — With four simple words Thursday, a new partnership between Columbus Air Force Base and Moody Air Force Base became official.
Standing with Col. John Nichols, commander of the Columbus-based 14th Flying Training Wing, behind the unrolled banner of the reactivated 81st Fighter Squadron, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Hogan took command of the squadron and accepted its mission to train Afghan fighter pilots.
“Sir, I assume command,” Hogan said to Nichols during an activation ceremony Thursday at Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta, Georgia.
The 81st deactivated in June 2013 following service that spanned more than seven decades and saw missions in Europe and the Middle East. But on Thursday, the 73rd anniversary of the squadron’s first activation at Key Field in Mississippi during World War II, the 81st returned to action.
Hogan’s squadron will begin next month training the first of 30 Afghan pilots and 90 Afghan maintainers at Moody on the A-29B Super Tucano aircraft to help them protect their homeland. The mission is expected to last about five years, according to Nichols, after which time he said the Afghans will return home with 20 of the A-29s.
Nichols said the Afghan government selected the pilots and maintainers that will participate in the program, but many of the foreign students have received previous training in the U.S. Some, Nichols said, had even earned their wings in Columbus.
“We’ve been training international students for decades, so this is nothing new,” Nichols said. “Many of these pilots, we’ve trained them already, so they have already proven their mettle, worth and capability.
“(Afghanistan) is very supportive of the mission,” he added. “They are sending their best and brightest to train.”
Training international pilots may be nothing new for the 14th FTW, but the logistics of this particular mission are unique. The 81st will be the first fighter squadron under the 14th Wing’s command that is “geographically separated” from Columbus. Hogan also noted in his remarks Thursday that the 81st “made history” with the speed by which it set up shop and prepared for the mission. Many times, he said, it took up to two years for a squadron to prepare for such a mission, but the 81st will only need four months to get ready to train the Afghans.
What makes that more phenomenal, according to Hogan, is that the A-29 is a brand new aircraft to the 81st.
As impressive as Hogan acknowledged his squadron had been in preparing for the mission, he urged his airmen Thursday to look ahead to the direct impact he expects them to make on Afghanistan’s future.
“Our real purpose is to enable peace in Afghanistan, a nation that hasn’t seen peace in 30 years,” Hogan said.
U.S. combat missions in the nation’s longest war — which began in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001 Al Quiada terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. — ended late last year, and President Barack Obama re-purposed U.S. forces to “train, advise and assist” the Afghan military in better protecting its own country.
Nichols said the new mission at Moody will help toward that end.
“We’re empowering Afghans to ensure the future of Afghanistan,” Nichols said. “This training and these A-29s will help accomplish that mission.”
Nichols also called Hogan the right man for the job of leading the 81st in the mission. Hogan has served several deployments as a pilot, including in Afghanistan, and has 2,700 evaluator hours on various aircraft. Nichols called Hogan an “expert on everything ‘close air support.'”
“He’s a perfect fit,” Nichols said. “He’s going to be a tremendous squadron commander.”
Columbus citizens also showed up in force for Thursday’s ceremony, with Mayor Robert Smith headlining a group of more than 20 city officials, business leaders and other CAFB supporters in attendance. The Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau sponsored a tour bus ride for invited guests to travel to Valdosta.
Smith said after Thursday’s ceremony that the local contingent — which drew recognition from both Columbus and Moody Air Force base leadership — sent the message of how much the 14th FTW meant to the city.
“The Columbus Air Force Base is a great asset to Columbus and Lowndes County, and the city has a great partnership with the Air Force base,” Smith said. “The community is very supportive of Columbus Air Force base and very appreciative of what the base does. This new partnership between Columbus Air Force Base and Moody Air Force Base shows that our base is recognized as a leader for training international pilots.”
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.