JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. –
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread across the globe, the Department of Defense now faces new challenges for providing America with its fighting force. For the Air Force this means developing a new norm for its fighter wings. Not only must they mitigate exposure for their work forces, but they still have a requirement to accomplish their primary mission to provide lethal airpower anytime, anywhere.
To accomplish this task despite the potentially crippling pandemic, leaders of the 1st Fighter Wing immediately implemented several aggressive social distancing and sanitization practices to ensure the safety of personnel who fly, maintain and support F-22 Raptor operations.
“I’ve asked my commanders and supervisors to implement social distancing measures to the maximum extent possible, and we’ve reduced flying as needed to support these measures,” said Col. David Lopez, 1 FW commander. “COVID-19 has changed what normal operations look like around the U.S. Air Force, but that has not stopped our ability to sustain the premiere 5th generation fighter jet and deliver F-22 air power on short notice to support Combatant Commanders worldwide.”
To comply with the DoD, Center of Disease Control and installation guidance, 1 FW leadership began exploring new and innovative ways to minimize potential hazards to Airmen. One solution was to split the work force into teams and then implement two schedules for each team, alternating daily or weekly, to minimize exposure to the larger sortie generation work groups.
Yet protective measures did not stop there as some units then incorporated staggered gaps between team turnovers to further reduce large personnel gatherings.
“These changes are in line with current installation Health Protection Condition measures set by the Joint Base Langley-Eustis installation commander and aircraft decontamination procedures,” said Col. David Seitz, 1st Maintenance Group commander.
Developing a new normal for mission accomplishment has changed some of the signature scenery Airmen have come to expect from flight line ops.
Support vehicles, known as bread trucks, now have limits on the number of passengers inside, and are instead mainly used to transport equipment and composite tool kits [CTKs] to appropriate aircraft parking spots, further enhancing social distancing and sanitation measures.
“The CTKs are staged and cleaned extensively after each shift on the flight line. Then, crew chiefs and aircraft maintainers will conduct turnover to decrease mass face to face meetings within support sections,” said Seitz. “High maintenance personnel contact zones in and around cockpits and throughout maintenance work areas are also sterilized.”
Additionally, with the unrelenting virus placing all at risk, the wing leadership turned to digital platforms for virtual meetings in lieu of face-to-face conference room gatherings.
Although in-person meetings may still occur, they are limited to command teams and follow strict social distancing guidelines. The wing also implemented the use of cloth masks, as directed by the Secretary of Defense, whenever six feet of personal separation cannot be maintained.
“We continue to fly today because nobody can predict how long the virus will affect the base [JBLE],” Lopez says. “The Commander of Air Combat Command [ACC] knows this, and asked each of his wings to keep flying as long as possible, and to resume flying as soon as possible after the virus passes, so that our nation always has the combat airpower it needs.”
Providing this short-notice, combat airpower is not new to the 1 FW. Twice in the past year its squadrons answered the Nation’s call. First, the 27th Fighter Squadron executed the largest and fastest deployment of F-22 Raptors ever in June 2019. The 94th FS quickly followed with their own rapid combat deployment in January 2020.
“In both instances, the mere arrival of our jets and our personnel helped defuse the regional crises,” Lopez continued. “While we’d like to believe that all nations will band together now to defeat this invisible enemy, history has shown that some nations may view this pandemic as an opportunity to wreak havoc for their own nationalistic gains.”
Although the long-term impacts of COVID-19 are still yet to be known, one thing is clear. It is changing how fighter wings across the globe are conducting business, which is no longer business as usual but instead business as required.
Our nation depends on us maintaining the readiness of our pilots, our maintainers, and our aircraft,” Lopez concluded. “And we will continue to do so. First to the Fight!”