07/17/13 — Back in the skies: 336th flying again

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Back in the skies: 336th flying again

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on July 17, 2013 1:46 PM

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336th Fighter Squadron Commander Lt. Col. Jim Howard puts on his helmet and prepares to take flight. The "World Famous Rocketeers" had, until this morning, been grounded since April, due to federal budget woes.

It has been more than two months since they stepped across the flight line -- since they extended crisp salutes and handshakes to the men charged with ensuring their F-15Es were fit to fly.

So when 336th Fighter Squadron Commander Lt. Col. Jim Howard approached the Strike Eagle that would, moments later, take him into the skies, he wore a smile.

And as he climbed into the cockpit, one of the young officers under his command, in one phrase, summed up what the "World Famous Rocketeers" have been feeling since they learned the Air Force's decision to ground their unit had been reversed.

"It's so great to be back," he said.

And then, with a roar ... sky.

The 336th resumed its mission late this morning with a pair of sorties -- flights that came less than 24 hours after Seymour Johnson Air Force Base brass announced that the Air Force had reversed its decision to stand down a third of its fighter jet fleet -- an announcement that was made possible thanks to $208 million of the $1.8 billion reprogramming allocation authorized by Congress, money that reinstated critical training and test operations for the Combat Air Forces fleet for the remainder of fiscal year 2013.

The two-month stand down marked the first time in the history of the 4th Fighter Wing that one of its squadrons was grounded due to budget woes -- news that was met, by top brass on Seymour Johnson, with trepidation.

4th Commander Col. Jeannie Leavitt said, back in April, that the move was a "big concern" that significantly reduced the wing's combat capability.

"You know, the mission of the 4th Fighter Wing is to deliver dominant Strike Eagle air power -- any time, any place -- and very shortly, we will only have one of our two operational squadrons ... combat mission ready and worldwide deployable," she said then.

And for the airmen hit the hardest by the news -- from 336th aviators to the men and women who ensure their fleet is fit to fly -- it was a morale blow.

Howard said that "finding out that you've lost your ride is ... disappointing" -- that despite the fact that being grounded would offer more time for the members of his unit to volunteer in the community and spend quality time with loved ones, it was tough news to take.

"I mean, they are here to fly," Howard said in April. "That's what we do."

So now, more than two months after their last trip through the clouds, they are celebrating.

"The Rocketeers are excited to be back up and running," Howard said. "The stand down was not what any of the Rocketeers wanted, of course, but it was necessary due to sequestration. We have a significant hill to climb to get the squadron back to our previous readiness level, but the Rocketeers are anxious to get back to doing what we do best -- preparing and employing world famous Strike Eagle airmen and aircraft to execute the missions our country demands."

4th Public Affairs officers said 336th crews would "ease" back into their pre-grounding routine -- that after a few weeks of light flying the unit would begin logging 120 hours a week to ensure it gets back to "combat mission ready" status.

But Air Combat Command Commander Gen. Mike Hostage was cautious not to celebrate too much -- insisting that the action was only the first in many steps it would take to guarantee squadrons like the 336th remain equipped to defend their nation in the coming years.

"Returning to flying is an important first step, but what we have ahead of us is a measured climb to recovery," he said Monday. "Our country counts on the U.S. Air Force to be there when needed -- in hours or days, not weeks or months. A fire department doesn't have time to 'spin up' when a fire breaks out, and we don't know where or when the next crisis will break out that will require an immediate Air Force response."