By Jeff Mullin, Senior Writer
Enid News and Eagle
ENID, Okla. —
Col. Darren James, commander of the 71st Flying Training Wing at Vance Air Force Base, has a bold guarantee for 2014.
James says the base’s new control tower, in the planning stages for years and under construction since the summer of 2012, will open sometime this year.
“I can tell you that, yes, in 2014, it will be open,” James said.
It is projected the Air Force will take occupancy of the new tower in July, then will have 60 days to move all equipment and furnishings out of the old tower before it is demolished.
The new tower will be taller and larger than the present tower, which was completed in 1972. The new tower’s cab floor will be 96 feet above ground level, compared to 63 feet for the current tower. The new tower will be 6,665 square feet, to just 2,294 for the old one.
James had hoped the tower would open during his tenure as wing commander, but he has his doubts.
“I can’t promise you that,” he said. “We have seen a lot more progress recently. There have been struggles between the (Army) Corps (of Engineers) and the contractor, but I think we’re to the point now where we’re moving forward at a decent pace.”
James, who took command of the 71st FTW in June of 2012, expects to be moving on to his next assignment in May or June.
“I’m here in full force until then,” he said. “We’re in no hurry to go.”
James is in his second stint at Vance. He was an instructor pilot here in the 1990s, and his youngest child, daughter McKenna, was born in Enid.
James said he doesn’t know whether the demand for new pilots will continue at the same level in 2014. Air Force leaders recently discussed possible force management moves, including eliminating the A-10 Thunderbolt II close air support aircraft and reducing personnel.
“What we’ve seen is, there is going to be a reduction in personnel,” said James. “We don’t know what the impact is yet on our base specifically.”
Initially, James said, he was expecting a 20 percent increase in pilot training in 2014, but that has changed.
“Subsequently we have been told that some of those numbers will shift back,” he said. “My guess is we will probably be producing about the same (number of pilots) we did in 2013.”
No matter the numbers, James said, Vance’s mission will not change.
“Even if the pipeline shrinks a little bit, we’re going to still continue to execute the mission,” he said. “It may affect the personnel on base as far as how many folks we have, but right now, I don’t know the significance of what reduction we may see.”
James sees proposed cuts in the size of the Air Force as a challenge Vance will have to face in 2014 and in the future.
“What will the changes in the overall Air Force mean to this base?” he said. “The mission will not change. We will be here executing the same thing day in and day out.”
This year may see a visit to Vance by new Air Education and Training Command commander Gen. Robin Rand.
“We are looking forward to bringing him out and showing him the fabulous relationship we have with the community and how we execute the mission,” James said. “To show him that we are the best pilot training base.”