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Fort Bragg's 440th Airlift Wing: Uncertainty prevails

March 4, 2014, was jarring for members of the 440th Airlift Wing and much of the Fort Bragg community.

Before that date, the promise of a newer, more modern air fleet had been held over Pope Field for nearly a decade. It was preparing for the C-130J, which would be faster than the older C-130Hs that had ferried local paratroopers for decades. The newer planes could carry a bigger load, and the more modern cockpits promised to change aviation.

But on that day in March - as the Air Force released information on its 2015 budget - word came that the 440th not only wouldn't get the newer planes, but that the wing's airmen and civilians would lose their older models, too.

The wing was slated for inactivation later that year.

It's a decision that would be delayed several times.

Now, nearly two years later, the airmen still face uncertainty.

A letter this month from Air Force and Army leaders appeared to seal the fate of the unit, even though leaders have pledged to continue the fight.

Once home to 1,200 members, the wing now has closer to 550. And next month, the wing's authorized manning will dip even further as officials prepare for a September inactivation.

Two years after the initial announcement, there are still questions about the decision.

The wing flew the only planes permanently based at Fort Bragg, home of the airborne.

Why the 440th?

The answer, according to Air Force documents released since March 2014, may be convenience more than anything else.

A 2015 report to Congress explained some of the process behind the 440th decision, but it also left more questions for those supporting the unit.

The report, which was nearly three months overdue when it was passed along to Congress, explained why the Air Force decided to cut the 440th and a squadron of C-130s in Mississippi.

The report included a reversal of the decision on the Mississippi unit, but that provided little comfort to airmen in North Carolina.

According to the Air Force, original plans from 2013 would have preserved the 440th and followed through on plans to upgrade its fleet. Instead, a unit at Pittsburgh Air Reserve Station would be closed.

Hampered by a shrinking budget and aging C-130 fleet, the Air Force needed to close a unit. But it had to do so without an important tool: base realignment and closure. The process that brought the 440th to Pope Air Force Base a few years earlier, then folded the base into Fort Bragg, had fallen out of favor in Congress.

With Congress unwilling to approve a BRAC round, and negotiations with elected leaders saving the Pittsburgh unit, the 440th came on the chopping block.

That's despite tens of millions of dollars that had already been spent to prepare Pope Field for the C-130Js.

That includes millions of dollars on hangar improvements, nearly $18 million for a new corrosion control facility, nearly $10 million to upgrade Pope Field's Blue Ramp to hold the larger planes and almost $5 million for a C-130J flight simulator.

With Pope Field no longer an Air Force Base, the service could shutter the unit without Congressional approval, officials said.

By its own admission, the Air Force did not consult Army or Fort Bragg leaders about the decision.

And to date, the Air Force has been unclear as to how the closure of the 440th will save money. The inactivation will increase the use of outside air crews that often accrue hefty bills flying across the country.

Also at issue is the promise to support Fort Bragg's airborne forces. Many airmen and supporters of the 440th point out that their current support is lagging, even with the 440th accounting for roughly a quarter of all airlift missions on post.

The fight to save the wing surprised the Air Force, which likely saw the Reserve wing as easy pickings.

The unit's champions have come in the form of U.S. Reps. Renee Ellmers, David Price, Richard Hudson and others representing North Carolina in the House, and from Sens. Thom Tillis, Richard Burr and former Sen. Kay Hagan.

But unless Congress finds a last-ditch success, many in the unit believe the fight is nearing an end.

After two years of not being able to welcome new airmen, the unit has been severely damaged, having to reduce its missions and limit the number of aircraft in use at any time.

Those who support the unit say the longer the fight has lasted, the more damage has been done.

Now, they wonder, if somehow the wing is saved, what will be left?

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©2016 The Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.)

Visit The Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.) at www.fayobserver.com

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