The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Local and State News

January 5, 2014

Challenging year: Col. James discusses 2013 at Vance AFB

ENID, Okla. — One word summed up 2013 at Vance Air Force Base, said 71st Flying Training Wing commander Col. Darren James.

“I would start by saying it was a challenging year,” James said.

The primary challenge stemmed from the sequestration defense spending cuts that automatically trimmed $12.4 billion from the Pentagon’s fiscal year 2013 budget when they went into effect March 1.

The cuts resulted in the base’s 284 appropriated fund civilian employees initially facing 22 unpaid furlough days before the end of September.

The Department of Defense managed to trim spending in other areas and cut the number of furlough days first to 11, then to six, but the impact of sequestration was nonetheless felt at Vance, James said.

“Sequestration and the impact on, not only the mission, but on people, I would say was probably one of the biggest challenges I’ve been through as a leader,” James said.

Despite sequestration, Vance continued executing its mission.

“What a phenomenal year,” James said. “We executed the mission to the level we were required to despite sequestration.”

That three-pronged mission is to develop professional airmen, train world-class pilots and deploy combat-ready warriors.

James expressed pride in Vance’s airmen as they met the challenges they faced in 2013.

“They executed in the face of those challenges and did our mission very well,” he said.

Vance met its assigned goal of training more than 300 pilots in fiscal year 2013, flying more than 49,000 sorties and 71,000 hours, and continuing its record of more than a million flying hours without a major aircraft accident.

The base likewise deployed more than 100 airmen to 19 different locations in 2013.

“We are supporting the war fight and combatant commanders,” James said. “I’m extremely proud of what the base and the folks on the base were able to accomplish.”

Besides sequestration, Vance had to deal with the effects of the 15-day government shutdown in October. One hundred of Vance’s civilian employees who were considered non-essential were furloughed for just a few days before Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel called them back to work.

“There was a severe impact, with people losing their opportunity for their livelihood,” James said. “I won’t say we didn’t skip a beat because there were some severe impacts to some people here on this base.”

A group of contract employees saw their pay cut after a change was made in their health insurance Jan. 1, 2013. Some employees of Project Resources Inc./Del-Jen Inc. wound up receiving smaller than normal paychecks, some for zero dollars.

In addition, the parent company of Vance’s prime contractor, CSC Applied Technologies, was sold mid-year to PAE, an Arlington, Va.-based firm. In September, a PAE executive team visited Vance to outline the transition for base leaders and employees.

“That transition, so far, has been smooth,”  James said.

When James took command at Vance in June 2012, he spoke of the challenges of overseeing a base where most of the services were provided by contractors. He has learned a lot in the past 18 months.

“We have great professionals here,” he said. “You get to be comfortable with the experience we have here on the base, the folks in our contracting flight. The contractor has been operating here since 1960, so it’s a well-developed relationship.”

The past year also saw the end of a 17-year era of joint pilot training at Vance, when the last Navy student flew his last training sortie in April.

Ensign Ryan Bush, a native of Louisville, Ky., was the last Navy student to fly a training mission at Vance. From 1996 to 2013, approximately 1,700 Navy and Marine students trained at Vance.

The joint mission remains, however, since there are as many as 19 Navy instructor pilots at Vance, plus one Navy squadron commander.

“A part of our Joint Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training course that we didn’t want to go away, unfortunately has,” James said.

With the departure of Navy students from Vance, Air Force students lose the experience of training alongside someone from a different service, but James thinks they benefit from having Navy instructors.

“I think, personally, that there’s more gained with the more senior officer interaction, the instructor pilots still having that interaction with a sister service is critical,” he said.

Vance underwent a major inspection in April and came through with good marks.

The base received an overall rating of satisfactory, the middle rating in the five-point grading system that includes outstanding, excellent, satisfactory, marginal and unsatisfactory. The wing received identical grades in 2009 and 2011.

“Our airmen did a tremendous job in that inspection,” James said.

Vance’s Records Management program received an outstanding rating, the first AETC base to receive that grade, and was judged by the inspector general team as the best such program seen to date.

“It was a comprehensive look,” James said. “We had only minor discrepancies, nothing that we really needed to answer to command about. We were happy to have the folks come in and give us a good look and we came out on the other end just as we thought we would, having performed very well.”

Vance’s Commanders’ Programs received an excellent grade for having exceeded mission requirements.

“When we talk about taking care of our people, it’s important that we know those programs are where we need to be,” James said.

As usual, Vance’s people were heavily involved in the Enid community in 2013, through events such as the November dedication ceremony for the Vietnam Memorial Wall at Enid Woodring Regional Airport and the Cherokee Strip parade.

“Getting back in and making sure our airmen are involved in the community in those capacities is very important,” James said. “I think we did a great job over this last year. It’s always good to see our folks in uniform out at those events.”

Team Vance members volunteered in many other ways in 2013, through events like Special Olympics and Camp Tomahawk, as well as the ABLE (Airmen Boosting Learning in Enid) program in which airmen spend time volunteering in 13 schools in three local school districts.

“This year, the goal was over 1,000 volunteer hours (in the schools), and we are approaching that very rapidly,” James said.

Ground was broken last month on the first phase of the $5.8 million project to lengthen Woodring’s primary runway some 2,300 feet, to 8,000 feet. That project is expected to be completed in 2015, about the time Vance’s outside runway is shut down for replacement. The extended runway will help Vance continue local flight operations, especially for the T-38, during the runway replacement.

“That’s going to be huge,” James said, and added that project is an example of the strong partnership between the base, the city and the state.

“That partnership is extremely important,” James said.

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