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Federal budget cuts ground Hill Air Force Base fighter pilots

Published April 10, 2013 8:26 am

Sequestration • Only units preparing to deploy to Afghanistan will continue training.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

An F-16 fighter-pilot squadron at Hill Air Force Base will be grounded when it returns from the Asia-Pacific region as a result of federal budget slashing.

The 4th squadron of the 388th Fighter Wing is one of 17 combat squadrons Air Force-wide that will stop flying for the rest of the budget year, Col. Scott C. Long, commander of the 388th, said Tuesday.

The 4th deployed in October, and Long hopes to have the 29 pilots and more than 200 support and maintenance crews home within a week or two. However, "with the situation in North Korea, that could change overnight," he said.

The decision by his boss, Gen. Mike Hostage, commander of Air Combat Command, "was a tough one to make," said Long.

He expects morale will take a hit, but said, "Our airmen are resilient and understand the predicament our nation is in and how it trickles down to us."

Only those units preparing to deploy to Afghanistan and other hotspots will continue training to the highest standards.

The U.S. Navy on Tuesday canceled the rest of the popular Blue Angels' aerobatic team's season, as the Air Force announced its plans to ground about a third of its active-duty force of combat planes.

The 388th's other fighter squadron, the 421st, is expected to deploy in the fall and will continue training, albeit at the reduced "basic mission capable" level they've been training at for several weeks.

The 25 pilots in that squadron will have to ramp up training to be "combat mission ready" once they know they are deploying.

The cuts are a result of sequestration, which kicked in March 1 when Congress and President Obama could not agree on a less drastic way of reducing the federal budget deficit. The Department of Defense is slashing $46 billion in spending this budget year.

About 11,500 civilian employees at the northern Utah air base also will bear some of the brunt of the cuts. The Pentagon has reduced the expected number of days they will be furloughed from 22 to 14, but the forced days off still constitute a pay cut.

The furloughs are expected to begin in mid-June and continue through September, although the details have not yet been worked out, said base spokesman Rich Essary.

Air Force leaders have said sequestration would significantly undermine readiness. In a news release, Hostage said the Air Force has not historically operated under a model that has only some fighter squadrons ready for combat because of the need to respond to any crisis within hours or days.

"The current situation means we're accepting the risk that combat air power may not be ready to respond immediately to new contingencies as they occur," he said.

Hostage's decision to fly 45,000 fewer training hours between now and the end of the year will save millions, since it costs thousands of dollars, mostly in fuel, every hour that jets are in the air.

Long said the 4th squadron's pilots will continue to train on the base's four flight simulators, and will do some non-flying exercises and scheduled inspections.

"We have a lot of creative ideas to stay busy," said Long, who has been nominated for promotion to brigadier general by President Obama. "A lot of things we've not be able to do we can get done."

Long said he has had no word yet on how budget cuts might affect the Utah Test and Training Range.

However, the Air Force has postponed — again — issuing a decision on where the first F-35s will be based. HAFB is considered the top choice, but the base will not know until at least December, he said.

kmoulton@sltrib.com