By Jeff Mullin, Senior Writer
Enid News & Eagle
A pair of T-38 jets taxied to a stop on the windblown ramp at Vance Air Force Base Thursday afternoon, ending a flying mission with roots stretching back to World War I.
The two jets had just concluded the final flight of the 3rd Fighter Training Squadron, Vance’s Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals Unit.
In May the Air Force announced plans to discontinue the IFF programs at Vance and Laughlin AFB, Texas, and to consolidate the 40-day advanced pilot training course at three bases — Randolph AFB, Texas; Sheppard AFB, Texas; and Columbus AFB, Miss.
Thursday’s final flight was made by 3rd FTS commander Lt. Col. James “Rock” Bottomlee, and director of operations, Lt. Col. Troy “Snake” Henderson. They flew to military airspace near Canton Lake, where they conducted a simulated dogfight as part of continuation training, which helps keep instructors proficient.
“I did too win,” a smiling Bottomlee yelled across the tarmac at his opponent.
Bottomlee wouldn’t call the occasion bittersweet.
“It’s bitter everything,” Bottomlee said, smiling. “Oh, no, not really. It’s been a really nice time commanding the 3rd and following in the legacy.”
The 3rd FTS, which stood up at Vance in spring 2007, dates back to November 1916, when it was established as 3rd Aero Squadron at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
“It is sad to see it go, sad to see the mission leave Vance,” said Bottomlee. “I think it is a good mission and we did well, training up some good students.”
In its four-plus years of existence at Vance, the 3rd FTS has trained 30 to 40 fighter and bomber pilots annually in T-38s equipped with gun sights and practice bomb dispensers. And did so successfully, Bottomlee said.
“Our students have over the last three years been 100 percent successful at their follow-on training,” he said, “which is a big deal because that means our product is a quality product.”
Based on the recommendation of combat commanders, the Air Force cut the number of IFF graduates it needed annually from 450 to 380.
Consolidating the IFF mission into three bases, Air Education and Training Command officials estimate, will save some $55 million over eight years.
In the wake of the announced closure of the Vance IFF mission, Oklahoma Sens. Jim Inhofe and Tom Coburn and 3rd District Rep. Frank Lucas, wrote a letter to Air Force officials seeking a detailed cost analysis of the expected savings.
Inhofe is out of the country and couldn’t be reached for comment, but his communications director, Jared Young, issued a statement saying “Senator Inhofe believes that the numbers-driven defense cuts that are taking place are not best for our military.
“The loss of the Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals mission at Vance will mean that the Air Force is losing its surge capacity, which will make responses to emergencies more difficult.”
Young said Inhofe continues to question the Air Force’s decision, saying the senator “believes that Vance can train these pilots efficiently, and at comparable cost.”
The IFF mission was formerly conducted at Moody AFB, Ga., until the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Commission divided it among Vance, Laughlin and Columbus. That move, said Mike Cooper, military liaison for the city of Enid, was not popular at the time among the Air Force brass.
“It was their original desire to leave that intact or to try to put it back together,” Cooper said. “They think they are going to save money. It doesn’t have anything to do with Vance itself. They do a great job of training. It’s just the number of fighter seats available. You can’t have a full stand-up mission if there are not a lot of people to train.”
Vance’s IFF mission includes 12 instructor pilots and two support personnel, as well as 16 aircraft. A ceremony officially deactivating the squadron is set for Dec. 2. In the meantime, Bottomlee said, the Warbirds will wind down their operations.
Some of the 3rd FTS’ personnel will be leaving Vance, but some, including Bottomlee, will stay on in different roles, he said. In the meantime, 3rd FTS instructors will do temporary duty at Ran-dolph and Columbus, helping stand up the IFF squadrons at those bases.
“As we stand down they are going to ramp up, and they still don’t have all the instructors they need yet,” Bottomlee said. “So we’re going to go and augment their instructors. The training that we’ve done here will actually just carry that experience to those bases.”
Young’s statement on behalf of Inhofe concludes: “He will continue to work with the Air Force to seek strategy-driven changes, and increased missions in the future for Vance.”
Losing a mission is never good, said Cooper, but there is a bright side to the demise of the 3rd FTS. Prior to the 2005 BRAC round, Vance was short on ramp space. But because of BRAC there have been millions of dollars in improvements, including ramp expansion and a new building to house the 3rd FTS.
“Because of the 3rd we have seen tremendous infrastructure improvement (at Vance), and our ability to take on additional missions,” he said. “We don’t want to lose anybody, but now we do have the capacity to do other things.”