—Brian Everstine and Steve Hirsch
F-22 Raptors at Tyndall AFB, Fla., will be examined for hurricane damage on Wednesday. Air Force photo by SSgt. Ryan Conroy.
The Air Force said on Tuesday it will start letting families return to Tyndall AFB, Fla., which was largely destroyed after Hurricane Michael ripped through and caused "catastrophic damage" to base facilities. An undisclosed number of F-22s that were left behind to ride out the storm also were damaged, though USAF leaders said on Monday that damage to the fifth-generation fighters wasn't as bad as initially expected.
With some debris cleared, the service on Wednesday will start wheeling F-22 aircraft out of severely damaged hangars so maintenance experts and Lockheed Martin officials can evaluate the Raptors' condition. Service officials visited the site over the weekend, and visually "we do not have any destroyed aircraft at Tyndall," USAF head of public affairs Brig. Gen. Ed Thomas said. "Generally, they look to be in good shape."
USAF officials would not specifically say the number of aircraft that were left behind and damaged, but Air Force Magazine has reported that up to 19 Raptors stayed. Fifty-five aircraft are stationed at Tyndall, and many of them have now moved to JB Langley-Eustis, Va.
At Tyndall, there is a "stark contrast" between the state of the hangars and of the aircraft left inside. Though the storm ripped doors off hangars and shredded roofs, the aircraft inside were intact.
Two of the hangars at the base are "structurally sound," and Air Force civil engineers will construct five to seven temporary hangars to house damaged aircraft while they are inspected, said Brig. Gen. John Allen, the director of civil engineers on the air staff. The base's tower is still standing, though its windows were blown out, and a temporary tower is controlling aircraft for now.
The base's flight line was damaged "catastrophically," with almost all buildings torn apart. It will take years for that part of the base to return to how it looked before the storm hit, Allen said. However, the runway itself was relatively unscathed, and aircraft were able to land after essentially a "large FOD walk," he said.
RED HORSE heavy construction units have already deployed to the base, and Prime Base Engineer Emergency Force, or Prime BEEF, will arrive soon to help build up the base so it can run as it would in a deployed contingency location, Allen said.
The Air Force, starting Tuesday, will allow a "limited return" of families to the base from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. through Sunday. Families and Air Force personnel can retrieve valuables and take pictures of damage to their homes, Thomas said. Insurance companies will also begin to arrive and set up mobile claims centers, Thomas said.
The return will be a challenge, as airmen and their families had fled the base to locations across the country. The Air Force is building a "heat map" of where personnel are to help the process, Thomas said.
There are more than 11,000 airmen displaced after the storm, said Maj. Gen. Andrew Toth, commander of the Air Force Personnel Center. AFPC is making a "significant effort" to help airmen who are facing reassignments, retirements, and separations. AFPC is also coordinating with Air Combat Command and Tyndall leadership to return airmen who are deployed, and is working on a "case-by-case basis" with airmen who are scheduled to deploy.
Tyndall also has a large training presence, with exercises such as Combat Archer for aircraft and Silver Flag for civil engineers scheduled in the future. The Air Force is looking at other locations for those exercises, noting there are some reserve bases the infrastructure necessary to conduct Silver Flag training for deploying civil engineers while Tyndall is down, Allen said.
Florida's two senators and the House member representing the area of Tyndall have written to President Donald Trump as well as Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein to support recovery of the storm-hit base. Sens. Marco Rubio (R) and Bill Nelson (D), and Rep. Neal Dunn (R) wrote to Trump on Monday asking him to affirm his commitment to rebuilding the base.
In their letter, the three called Tyndall "one of the most critical installations in the United States" and said it is "imperative we rapidly repair and restore operations as quickly as possible." They asked Trump for his "commitment in moving quickly to bringing the thousands of devoted service members and civilians back to Tyndall Air Force Base," adding that they are committed to the base's recovery "and are ready to work with you to achieve that goal." In a letter to Wilson and Goldfein, they said the base serves "a critical role in protecting and promoting US national security interests," adding that "it is vital that we rapidly repair infrastructure and restore operations in the wake of the storm."
Each of them, they said, is ready "to work with the Air Force to rebuild Tyndall AFB and advocate for the resources needed to do so." As the Air force assesses damage, they wrote, "We request consistent, immediate, and detailed communication of the funding and support needed to repair infrastructure, restore operations and provide for local service members, civilians, and their families."
A group of military spouses at nearby Eglin AFB, Fla., have set up online Amazon and Target wish lists for anyone looking to support the military families displaced by Hurricane Michael. By Oct. 12, the group had already received some 900 packages, but donations are still needed, reported Military.com. If you'd like to donate the Amazon list is available here and the Target list is available here.
More than 300 members of the Air Force Association also were affected by the Catagory 4 storm, which is one of the worst on record. To help them, and other local military families in need, AFA's Tyndall Chapter has set up a relief fund and is accepting donations.
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