Tuesday, April 05, 2011

TOP STORY >> Colonel gives tour of air base

Leader executive editor

Col. Mike Minihan, commander of the 19th Airlift Wing, is driving a visitor around Little Rock Air Force Base. It’s mid-day Thursday, and he points to several new buildings going up and improvement projects under way costing about $80 million.

Buildings and roofs are being repaired, while streets and parking lots are repaved.

Several new buildings—such as the 19th Operations Headquarters, the Air National Guard’s 123rd Intelligence Squadron Center and the 189th Engineer Repair Facility—are among those under construction.

The 123rd gathers key air intelligence over Iraq and Afghanistan and relays information to the military on the ground. Minihan is pleased that the Guard’s citizen-airmen play a major role in intelligence. He has praise for all the units on base.

Other recent construction projects include the Joint Education Center on the base periphery, which is accessible to civilians. The flight simulators have been expanded. The airfield has been repaired. On this spring day, the base is looking exceptionally good.

“Our mission couldn’t be better,” the colonel says.

He’s driving around to thank the airmen for what they do every day.

“They’re so good,” he says. “They’re well-trained. It’s an incredible gift they give to the nation.”

Minihan is grateful for the new construction projects since the Pentagon’s $549 billion budget will face serious cuts in the next few years. The military is looking to save $100 billion—$33.3 billion from the Air Force budget—in the next five to six years.

The Air Force is doing more with less: Active-duty personnel are down to 335,000, or about half what they were a decade ago.

“It is clear our charge is to become more efficient in today’s economic times,” Minihan says.

He stays busy on and off the base. Minihan recently went to Washington with Col. Mark Czelusta, commander of the 314th Airlift Wing, and a Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce delegation to meet with Arkansas congressmen and thank them for supporting the base.

This is the largest C-130 base in the world with more than 90 airplanes. They’re constantly on the go — many of them in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere overseas — while others are always training over the skies of central Arkansas and beyond.

The 41st Airlift Squadron and its all-new C-130Js are setting records for airdrops in Afghanistan. The squadron, which has been at Kandahar airfield since March 2009, previously set a record of 51 airdrop missions in January. The unit beat that record last month by completing 72 airdrops of almost 1,100 bundles weighing more than 1.5 million pounds.

Minihan has been at work since 6 a.m. He stops at the 61st Airlift Squadron building and walks up to the unoccupied desk of longtime secretary Cindy Dale, who passed away a few days before. He offers his condolences to her co-workers. Everyone agrees she was special.

When Minihan walks outside, he says he remembers the small building the 61st Airlift Squadron worked in when he was an aircraft commander with the squadron in 1991-94.

“We couldn’t all fit in at the same time,” he says.

Minihan says he’s “a repeat offender,” having done a couple of tours at the base.

Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, was a flight examiner with the 61st Airlift Squadron from 1977-79. He received his C-130 training here a few years before that.

Another repeat offender.

“Everyone who flies C-130s calls Little Rock home,” Minihan says.

The base spent $154 million last year in addition to its $375 million annual payroll. It created $119 million in local jobs. The base calculates an economic impact of $712 million a year in the community.

A small part of the $549 billion Pentagon budget, to be sure, but Minihan believes the base is a good steward of the taxpayers’ dollars.

He makes a stop at the 19th Operation Support Squadron Weather Flight, which was recently named the best in the Air Force for its forecasts.

The award was announced only that morning, and he offers his congratulations. Minihan walks through a hall and orders sandwiches to go in a brown bag for his entourage.

He gets in his car and drives up to the air-control tower. He walks up the stairs carrying his lunch and greets several air-traffic controllers, who are directing flights from all directions.

The colonel likes what he sees. From the tower, this is big-sky country. Planes line up on the right for takeoff. Up in the air straight ahead are planes getting ready to land.

This is the busiest flightline in Air Mobility Command and the second busiest in the Air Force. The tower directs some 200-300 flights a day staffed by young people, some as young as 19.

Sgt. Kelena Hendricks is in charge of the tower that day. She’s serious, focusing on the flights, but she occasionally shares a laugh with her crew to ease the tension in the tower.

These planes don’t have flashy stripes and names on them. Controllers see the gray cargo planes out there and hope they can keep track of them as they take off and land.

“It’s a challenge,” she explains. “They all look alike.”

Hendricks, who is from East Los Angeles, is known affectionately as “The Mexicutioner.”

The 19th Operational Support Squadron air-traffic control tower last year was named the best in the Air Force.

Airman 1st Class Seth Roberts, 21, has just qualified for a controller’s license and receives a pin from Master Sgt. Allan Turk, the chief controller. Minihan also offers his congratulations, then goes downstairs and drives to the flightline.

He talks to the young crew making repairs. He shakes everyone’s hands and asks them how they’re doing and if they need anything.

“More tools,” one of them says.

Old planes are constantly being repaired. Minihan is used to flying 20-year-old airplanes, and that’s fine with him.

Pointing to a nicely refurbished C-130 on the flightline, Minihan says the plane was made back when he joined the Air Force.

Capt. Naomi Donavan walks up to the group. She is in charge of more than 400 maintainers and 30 planes. Half of them are usually deployed.

Minihan says Donavan is the No. 1 captain on base. He thinks the world of her.

“She’s a phenomenal leader,” he says.

He wasn’t in charge of as many people when he was a squadron commander here, Minihan says later.

He says all credit goes to the more than 7,200 active-duty military and civilian members and their families.

The base’s total population of more than 14,400 includes active duty, Arkansas Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve, C-130 students, civilian employees and family members.

“It all works because of the airmen and their families,” Minihan says.