- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 2, 2019

TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. — Col. Brian Laidlaw rode out Hurricane Michael at Tyndall Air Force Base last fall. On many days, it seems the storm has never abated.

Hurricane Michael smote the spit of sand that the base occupies on the Florida Panhandle as a Category 5 storm in October. The storm’s wind speeds topped 160 mph. The eye of the storm passed right over Tyndall, leaving Mexico Beach — the hardest-hit spot just east of the eye — in matchsticks.

Reminders of Michael’s fury are everywhere. Col. Laidlaw, the base commander, and other airmen and civilians along U.S. 98, the Panhandle’s main beachfront drag, see clumps of shuttered small businesses, blue tarps patching holed roofs and debris strewn about empty lots. The oak trees are denuded, and many of the pines have been snapped in half.

The arched roofs of some hangars have been reduced to dangling boards and beams. The base’s fire department and many of the personnel are living and working in modular homes trucked in and constructed on site. Bulldozers and earth movers crawl over piles of dirt and rubble. The chapel, the library and some of the big dorms stand empty, many with the ubiquitous blue tarps stretched taut over their shells.

Large swaths of mangled and browning vegetation are spread out over parts of the base. On the verge of summer, Florida fire marshals are nervous.

“We’ve got five phases of demolition we need to do here, and right now we’re up to about phase three,” the 44-year-old colonel said as he drove around the base.

“And then, of course, we had a tornado rip through here in January,” said the 325th Fighter Wing commander, shaking his head. “So, yeah, we’ve got that to deal with, too.”

To bring a new and improved Tyndall to life would cost at least $4.25 billion, Pentagon officials say, and that money isn’t close to being available. Air Force officials are looking to reduce the costs and size of the base.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson on May 1 called a halt to all new projects at Tyndall while Congress wrangles over a disaster relief package, which has been approved by the Senate but has stalled in the House with lawmakers on recess. While they wait for approval, Tyndall officials are working on the $400 million in projects that were under contract before the freeze.

That leaves sporadic hammering and has ground to a stop any repair work at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, which was recently devastated by a flood.

“The supplemental funding and budget reprogramming requests are about more than just Tyndall and Offutt,” Ms. Wilson said in a statement. “We’re robbing other projects to fund minimal recover efforts because Congress hasn’t moved forward yet with recovery funding. The lack of funding now for these projects is impacting all of our bases.”

It’s not as if Tyndall is relying solely on the Joint Chiefs of Staff for support. President Trump visited the base last month, and both of Florida’s senators, Republicans Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, have been on the base with pledges to get the money needed for restoration.

Tyndall, with roughly 4,400 workers and their dependents, is an important cog in the local economy, which was hit with $25 billion in total damage from Hurricane Michael. About 80% of the base’s workers have returned.

Tyndall is one of several Air Force installations along the Gulf of Mexico’s northern rim. It sits less than 100 miles east of Eglin Air Force Base near Pensacola. Tyndall’s permanent group of F-22 Raptors is stationed at Eglin, and some ask whether the service could merge the two bases into one.

“It might seem that way because repairing Tyndall is costing a ton of money,” one high-ranking Air Force officer not stationed there told The Washington Times. “But from a military standpoint, reopening Tyndall is really a no-brainer.”

Air Force brass note the geography. All the Air Force’s air-to-air weapons and F-22 pilot training are at Tyndall. The airspace just off shore is commanded by the Pentagon in ways no other base can provide, and considerable savings are made through supersonic fuel conservation during prolonged exercises.

The huge military zone over the Gulf also provides the space needed for the military’s high-tech “fifth generation” weapons, and the effects of exercises on residents and commercial air traffic are kept to a minimum.

“We launch drones here to replicate the enemy, and often they are loaded with explosives,” Col. Laidlaw said. “Occasionally, not often, something goes awry and we have to detonate them. Something tells me people wouldn’t like that happening over Okaloosa Island or Destin,” which are popular resort spots between Eglin and the Gulf.

A number of moves are being made to reduce costs and preserve long-term effectiveness, said Brig. Gen. Patrice A. Melancon, executive director of the Tyndall Air Force Base reconstruction program management office.

“This has given us a chance to take a very deliberative look at the master plan, because 50% of the base is beyond the point where repairing it makes economic sense,” she said.

Consequently, the Air Force is trying to reduce its Tyndall footprint. That means facilities such as new dorms, a bowling alley and a chapel can be concentrated in one area south of U.S. 98.

The Florida Department of Transportation has agreed to build an overpass for U.S. 98, which bisects the base, so service members will be able to move freely to the north side and Tyndall’s vast airfield.

With a vast expanse of empty concrete, Tyndall hosted a “Checkered Flag” exercise in May. The sprawling operation involving NATO allies had up to 55 fighter jets and other aircraft roaring on and off the runways.

Nearly three-quarters of Tyndall’s 29,000 acres remain wild, which allows for other specialized training. In a northeastern corner of the base, combat engineers use a mock airfield to repeatedly blow up sections of the runway and learn to rebuild them as quickly as may be necessary in war zones.

With the $400 million budget, Gen. Melancon and her planners have prioritized the airfield. The ruined hangars present a particular challenge because of the chance that they will produce “foreign object debris,” which can ruin billion-dollar fighter jet engines and coatings.

Indeed, before a car or any other vehicle crosses a red line on the southern edge of the flight line, its tires must be inspected for any pebbles, sticks or other objects that might be wedged in the rubber patterns.

While the Pentagon has no blueprint for how to run such a massive repair and rebuilding project, Col. Laidlaw and his staff have consulted with myriad civilian specialists. A team of Air Force officers visited Homestead near Miami to study how that area came back from Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

It’s not flying a supersonic fighter jet, but it’s incredibly exciting, Gen. Melancon said.

“I had to come back on to active duty for this,” she said. “It’s really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to almost start from scratch and build a new base.”

• James Varney can be reached at jvarney@washingtontimes.com.

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