Wednesday, November 23, 2011

TOP STORY >> For Air Guard, doing more on a small budget

Leader executive editor

The Air National Guard at Little Rock Air Force Base is hiring, even though it’s facing possible budget cuts like the rest of the military.

Because of the failure of a congressional super-committee to reach an agreement this week on spending cuts and tax increases, the defense department could face up to 50 percent of mandatory reductions in its $170 billion budget starting in 2013.

But Col. Steve Eggensperger, commander of the 189th Airlift Wing, said Monday that the Air National Guard has continued to do more with less. With only 6 percent of the Air Force budget, the Air National Guard carries out more than a third of the Air Force mission.

“Yes, defense budget cuts will affect all components of the Department of Defense to include the National Guard,” he said. “The Air National Guard uses approximately 6 percent of the USAF budget but provides approximately 35 percent of the capability of the USAF. So you can see that the citizen airmen of the Air Guard are a great value for America particularly in these fiscally challenging times. Hopefully, this fact will be taken into consideration when budget decisions are made.”

He heads the most decorated Guard unit in the nation.

“The Guard has been in central Arkansas since 1923,” he points out.

Eggensperger still hopes to fill 37 key positions that are open at one of the busiest training centers in the Air Force. Another 60 positions will open up through attrition and retirement.

He prefers people with Air Force experience, but he’ll hire high school graduates with enthusiasm. The Guard will give them a signing bonus and put them through college.

The 189th trains crews from around the world on older C-130s. Almost half the trainers are full-time Guard members. Like Eggensperger, many of them joined the active-duty Air Force before moving to the Guard.

“One of the keys to our success is we have all that experience. The average instructor pilot has 4,000 flying hours. The average maintainer has 17 years experience.

“When people separate from the Air Force, we at Little Rock Air Force Base can keep that experience,” the commander said. “Some stay till they’re 60.”

The Guard here, Eggensperger says, trains more advanced crews than the Reserve command: “We’ll train the trainers,” he explains.

He has nine C-130s, all of them 25 years old, under his command. Last year, the wing graduated 369 flying instructors.

Work starts at 4:30 a.m. and ends at 11 p.m. “It’s a busy place,” the colonel says.

Despite budget cutbacks, the wing has several key openings, including:

 Command post controller

 Aircrew flight-equipment specialist

 Aircraft mechanic

 Vehicle operations manager

 Computer specialist

 Security-forces defender

 Paralegal assistant

 Chaplain assistant

 Public health officer

 Family physician

Aircraft-propulsion mechanic

 Personnel craftsman

 Aerospace medical craftsman.

“Because our flying mission involves teaching the C-130 instructor school curriculum, the aviators we hire must be experienced C-130 instructors — pilots, navigators, flight engineers, and loadmasters — and we typically hire these instructors from the active-duty Air Force. Any time we can hire a trained and experienced airman from the Air Force, it saves the training cost to the Air Guard,” Eggensperger says.

“However, sometimes we can’t hire a trained individual, so we hire high school or college graduates, and then we send them to basic training and technical school to provide them with the training to become qualified in their chosen career field. And, of course, our new recruits are eligible for some great educational benefits to help them continue their education.

“Because the 189th Airlift Wing does the full-time C-130 training mission, a larger percentage of our force is full-time,” Eggensperger explained.

“But about 57 percent of our members are drill-status Guardsmen. These DSGs work approximately one weekend a month and do at least 15 days of military duty at some time during the year.

“In addition, our aviators must complete some additional flight training periods each month so they work on average a couple days more per month than a non-flyer.”

Eggensperger was born in Fayetteville and grew up in Conway and now lives in Cabot. He graduated from the Air Force Academy and has a master’s degree from the University of Arkansas.

He started as a pilot instructor with the 50th Tactical Airlift Squadron at Little Rock Air Force Base in 1990 and then joined the 314th Tactical Airlift Wing before moving on to the Air National Guard at the base.

Eggensperger is the former 189th Operations Group commander. Before that, he was 154th Training Squadron commander.

He became commander of the 189th Airlift Wing last May, succeeding Col. Jim Summers.