March 9, 2008

Smooth landing for Air Guard
Move from Sandston to Langley suits members -- except for commute

By Peter Bacque
Courtesy of Richmond Times Dispatch

LANGLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Va. — Three years after the Virginia Air National Guard's members began to move here from Sandston, they like everything about their new workplace but the drive.

"This is probably the best job I've ever had," said Master Sgt. Jerry Talley, who manages repair-parts inventory for the Air Force's entire fleet of F-15 fighters. "All the way down to a rivet, we're responsible for it."

Talley, who lives in Gum Spring in Louisa County, now has a 110-mile commute to work.

"I hate that we're not in Sandston, but I don't regret it," he says of the Air Guard's transfer to Langley. "Nope, I'll make the commute."

For several years, the Air Force has been cutting people and organizations to reshape itself to meet 21st-century threats and accommodate tight budgets. The state Air National Guard could have seen its fighter wing shut down if the unit had not relocated from its longtime home at Richmond International Airport, officials said.

At Langley, airmen with the Virginia Air Guard's 192nd Fighter Wing are integrated -- "associated" is the term the Air Force uses -- with the active-duty Air Force's 1st Fighter Wing as well as two other regular Air Force organizations.

"So there are three things we do now, instead of just one," said Col. Jay Pearsall, the 192nd's commander.

Besides flying the stealthy, supersonic and cybercentric F-22 Raptor, the Virginians have taken on additional roles in intelligence and logistics.

In December, the Air Force declared the associated wings were combat-ready in the service's new $159.9 million jet (research, development and testing costs raise the per-plane cost to more than double that figure). The 192nd is the first Guard unit involved in the operational rollout of one of the Air Force's front-line fighters.

"I'm tickled to death I'm going to finish my career on the F-22," said Chief Master Sgt. Mike Crockett, a 30-year Air Guard veteran who commutes to Langley from Varina. "We're sort of making history here."

Administrative control of the 192nd remains with the Air National Guard at the same time that the Virginia unit shares the airplanes, equipment, office space and work of the regular Air Force's 1st Wing.

But the novel integration has not come without some pain. About 70 Guard members decided against making the move.

"The biggest concern was initially how we'd fit in," Crockett said. "It took several months to get to know one another."

Fitting in -- literally -- was an issue when the Guard moved to Langley.

"I started out with a card table, laptop computer, a trash can and a chair . . . for a month or two," Crockett said.

And "there are cultural issues we had to overcome," said Lt. Col. Dave Nardi, an Air Guard pilot who lives in western Henrico County.

More than 600 of the 192nd Wing's men and women are part-time personnel -- called "traditional guardsmen" who have full-time civilian jobs -- while about 230 of the Virginia guardsmen are working full-time at Langley.

"The active-duty [units] typically take on a lot of deployed taskings that take guys on the road," explained Nardi, an Air Force Academy graduate. "We obviously are not doing that."

For longer deployments, the Guard seeks volunteers.

"We ask, we don't task," Pearsall said. "We're still depending on people's ability to get time off from their [civilian] employers."

Still, Virginia Guard pilots and maintainers have been able to take part in all of the Langley Raptor's deployments.

The Air Guard typically has more experienced and senior-ranking people than the regular Air Force does in similar jobs, Pearsall said, but that imbalance "is rapidly becoming a nonissue."

Of course, said Lt. Col. Philip Stewart, an active-duty Air Force pilot at Langley, "there's something to be said for having older guys."

"Our guys bring 30 years of working on airplanes," Nardi said. "The Raptor's a new airplane, but an airplane's an airplane."

By law, guardsmen -- unless they're mobilized -- work for the state's governor and don't take orders from regular Air Force personnel, and active-duty airmen aren't supposed to be under the command of guardsmen, even when they work shoulder to shoulder.

"When we can share duty that doesn't breach that chain of command, we do," said Mechanicsville's Lt. Col. Mark McCauley, the 192nd's operations director.

Rather than hire a clutch of lawyers, the airmen turning wrenches on the F-22s at Langley have figured out how to make the new setup function.

"It's kind of a handshake agreement," Stewart said. "It would only take one person in the chain to derail it.

"I did not think it would work, to be honest," he said. "I was wrong."

Copyright Richmond Times-Dispatch, used with permission.

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