Shrinking resources ground Navy air squadrons

August 24, 1994|By Seattle Post-Intelligencer

The pressures of conducting foreign operations in a time of shrinking resources is forcing the Navy to ground several air squadrons.

Five carrier squadrons at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, Wash., have been fully or partially grounded because the Navy does not have enough money to pay for training flights and foreign operations at the same time, officials say.

Nationwide, three carrier air wings and a half-dozen P-3C patrol squadrons have been partially or totally grounded until Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year. Other affected naval air stations include Norfolk and Oceana in Virginia, Cecil Island in Florida and Lemoore, Mirimar and North Island in California.

Navy officials say the grounding is unprecedented. Even in the cash-strapped era of the 1970s, the service was able to maintain flight operations.

But faced with unexpected requirements to send additional warships to the Korean peninsula and Haiti this summer, the Navy has squeezed hard to come up with the operating funds to pay the bill, officials say.

Normally, a squadron coming off a six-month deployment goes on inactive status for 30 days, then begins training flights to reacquaint crewmen with basic flying skills.

But money was shifted to other carrier air wings on deployment or nearing their departure date, said Navy spokesman Lt. Conrad Chun. Congress approved $2.3 billion for flying in 1994 but the Navy had a $44 million shortfall because of the unanticipated missions.

"This is unprecedented in my experience," said Cmdr. Lee Holbrook, 39, who has served in the Navy since 1976 and is feeling the pinch at Whidbey. "We had the unfortunate luck to come back [from deployment] right as the fourth quarter began."

As a result, Commander Holbrook today leads a squadron that cannot fly its aircraft. He is faced with what he admits is "a significant challenge" in leading a team of 24 aviators and 160 enlisted specialists who have no aircraft to maintain or fly.

By mid-September, most of the squadron's pilots and electronic countermeasures officers will lose their Navy flight certification. Regulations require that pilots fly a minimum of 10 hours with two takeoffs and landings every 90 days.

Officers have been assured that when the 1995 fiscal year begins the fuel money will flow again, Commander Holbrook said.

But one concern, said squadron safety officer Lt. Cmdr. Paul Dillman, is that flying skills are perishable. Squadron fliers will have to work even harder to refine their techniques once the grounding is lifted, he said.

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