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Selfridge’s future is up in the air

by Candice Miller on April 11, 2012

By Peggy Walsh-Sarnecki

Detroit Free Press Staff Writer

Master Sgt. Johnny White lies facedown in the tail of the KC135 airplane. Below him, a glass window offers a stunning view of the Thumb area.

White’s view becomes partially blocked as an A10 aircraft slowly nudges its way under his plane’s tail.

The planes perform an intricate dance — the A10 maneuvering within a few feet of the KC135 air refueling tanker, matching the plane’s speed and altitude as it prepares to refuel.

The Free Press recently was given a rare firsthand look at the operations at Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Harrison Township as the planes’ crews, part of the 127th Air Wing, practiced their skills as budget cuts threaten to cull personnel and equipment from the base that is home to 44 Guard and Reserve units.

The Air Force is under orders to cut its budget and shift its focus from supporting ground troops to tackling more long-range missions — such as remote drone attacks. And Selfridge — along with the Battle Creek Air National Guard Base — is expected to lose hundreds of personnel, along with its mainstay A10 planes because they are used almost exclusively to support ground troops.

The proposed budget and the 700 jobs that Selfridge could lose are tender subjects around the base, especially because the 127th returned in January — just six weeks before the proposed cuts were announced — from yet another deployment to Afghanistan. There, it conducted 2,000 combat sorties in about 8,000 flying hours.

“To come home and be subject to mass layoffs, that’s humbling,” said Col. Michael Thomas, 127th Wing commander.

The 127th has been deployed overseas nine times in the war against terrorism, in addition to its role supporting community and state needs.

Lawmakers push back

With changes coming, Michigan’s Democratic U.S. senators, Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow, along with Republican U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, whose district includes Selfridge, have urged the federal government to rethink the proposed cuts to the base because of the vital services it provides to homeland security.

One of those services is the refueling tankers. As long-range attacks in a post-Afghanistan military become more common, the role of refueling tankers like those based at Selfridge will become more crucial. The Air Force’s proposed budget would add more refueling tankers to Selfridge.

Levin, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Miller have said the Air Force is cutting too much out of the Reserve and Guard units.

They note that the Guard and Reserve make up 30% of the forces yet account for only about 6% of the cost.

Meanwhile, training and missions continue as though there were no political battle looming in Washington, D.C.

During the refueling exercise, White, who is from Flint, maneuvered the 33-foot gas pole, called a boom, into the A10′s gas tank using only his hand-eye coordination. It’s kind of like trying to put gas in a car from a moving tanker truck — at 16,000 feet in the air and going 400 m.p.h.

The refueling mission over the Thumb takes only about 20 minutes. The tanker can put out 1,000 gallons of fuel per minute, and it has a total capacity of more than 33,000 gallons of fuel.

“We can put more through that pump in one minute than you’ll use in your car all year,” said Master Sgt. Mike Weir of Port Huron, the tanker’s other boom operator.

A delicate operation

Boom operators spend one year training. The biggest danger is the possibility of a collision between the planes.

Threading the boom into planes flying at that speed can get tricky when the weather is bad, Weir said.

“It gets a little nerve-racking because you’re afraid of hitting them” with the boom, Weir said.

Up front, the pilots are thinking about what could go wrong, including decompression or losing the plane’s hydraulics.

“You look for other traffic,” said Maj. Tate Whitener of New Haven, the tanker’s pilot. Once the two planes are attached, there’s not a lot of room for maneuvering. The pilots are constantly listening to the receiving plane on the radio. “If another plane comes in too fast, they can drive the boom into the plane and you can’t separate.”

Col. Philip Sheridan of Grosse Pointe, the 127th Wing’s vice commander, flew one of the A10s.

“Anytime you get close to another aircraft, you have a little bit of trepidation,” Sheridan said. “But we’re very experienced in the Guard.” Sheridan also flies for American Airlines.

All of the pilots and boom operators flying that day had active-duty experience. They all said they joined the Guard because it combines what they did on active duty with more time with their families.

“It’s more family-oriented, the way they treat you in the Guard,” Whitener said.

Contact Peggy Walsh-Sarnecki: 586-826-7278 or mmwalsh@freepress.com

More Details: About Selfridge

Planes from Selfridge Air National Guard base fly nearly every day.

The Harrison Township base is home to 44 separate entities, including elements of the Air Force, Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The 127th Wing is the largest Selfridge resident. The 171st Air Refueling Squadron and the 107th Fighter Squadron, both part of the 127th Wing, were involved in the refueling operation described in this report.

About 6,000 people are employed on the base. Nearly 2,000 of them are attached to the 127th Wing — and 99% of those live in Michigan.

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