VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. — Vance Air Force Base has earned a reputation in the Air Force for meeting pilot production goals — it was the only Air Education and Training Command base to exceed its quotas in both 2018 and 2019.

But, with coronavirus cases still on the rise, a replacement project on the base's longest runway and the continuing need to balance increased production with quality and safety, Col. Timothy Danielson, who assumed command at Vance on June 29, has his work cut out for him to continue that high standard.

Danielson said he expects meeting pilot output goals amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic to be one of the greatest challenges of his time in command at Vance.

"Our leadership, and Air Force leadership at large, think this is here to stay — at least for the next year," Danielson said. "The challenge is how we continue to produce the best airmen in the world in that environment."

Danielson praised Vance's public health team, saying they "have done an excellent job" in implementing COVID-19 prevention measures.

Going forward, Danielson said Vance is targeting "no-fail" mission areas, such as Air Traffic Control, with even more stringent infection-prevention measures.

Tower crews now work in multiple shifts during the day, with flight operations ceasing for about an hour in between shifts for the work space to be sanitized. Danielson said those kind of measures are being taken in other mission-critical areas on base, to prevent cross-contamination between shifts, and is being studied for implementation, if needed, among aircrew.

Next to coronavirus, Danielson said a replacement of the base's center, and longest, runway will pose a significant challenge.

A $40 million refurbishment of the outside runway was completed in fiscal year 2019, along with a $7.8 million refurbishment of the inside runway and taxiway lighting at the start of fiscal year 2020, which began in October. Danielson said the center runway hasn't undergone any significant work since 2001. And, he said, the pace of operations is taking its toll.

"Thankfully, the runway is still safe," Danielson said, "but when you're flying 250 sorties a day, it does create wear and tear on the runways."

When the center runway is taken offline for replacement next summer — a $55 million project expected to take more than a year to complete — Danielson said the base will rely heavily on Enid Woodring Regional Airport, as it did during the last two runway projects, to augment its runway capacity.

"How we partner with Woodring is going to be critical," Danielson said. "Thankfully, here at Vance our partnership with the community is outstanding."

Danielson also will preside over continued efforts to fund a $10 million to $15 million project to build a new 100-bed enlisted dormitory on base. He said the Air Force is considering "multiple avenues to get the project funded," but said it will be a high priority in the next few years.

Construction of a new operations building on base, with an estimated price tag of $70 million, also will be a high priority, and currently is the No. 4 project on AETC's priority list, Danielson said.

Danielson said construction of the operations building is needed to meet increased demand for pilot production.

"The buildings we have now, they're adequate for the students and instructors we have, but as we ramp up our pilot production they're getting small for the operations we're working out of there," Danielson said.

Amid the infrastructure and pandemic challenges, Danielson and his team also face the challenge of balancing quality and safety with the Air Force's increasing demands for pilot production.

With calls for Vance to produce 350 pilots a year, and for AETC to put out about 1,400 pilots each year, Danielson said the pressure to produce, while also maintaining quality and safety, "is always going to be there."

"There's always going to be a pressure there to produce pilots," Danielson said, "but we're never going to sacrifice quality and safety."

Danielson said Vance is at the forefront of the Air Force's new UPT 2.5 syllabus, which uses virtual reality technology to give students more pre-flight practice of maneuvers, and immediate post-flight opportunities to re-train on mistakes made in the cockpit.

He said that combination of more advance training and immediate post-flight practice on areas that need more work will allow instructors to advance students faster, with the same amount of cockpit time.

And, since some students master flying faster or slower than others, Danielson said Vance is moving to a "student-centered approach," where students can be advanced or held back depending on their progress, rather than requiring an entire class to progress together.

Danielson said he is looking forward continuing to execute UPT 2.5, developing Vance's enlisted airmen, boosting diversity and inclusion on the base, and "continuing to deliver the world's best pilots."

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Neal is health, military affairs and religion reporter and columnist for the Enid News & Eagle. Follow him on Twitter, @jamesnealwriter, and online at jamesrneal.com.
Have a question about this story? Do you see something we missed? Do you have a story idea for James? Send an email to jneal@enidnews.com.

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