FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — Fort Bragg was supposed to be safe.
As news spread of the 2015 defense budget, officials emphasized the importance of two key tenants of the Army's largest post — the nation's global response force and special operations.
While other units have dealt with budget cuts, special operators and the 82nd Airborne Division on Fort Bragg have seen their training budgets preserved, shielded from the fiscal constraints imposed on other units.
At Pope Field, where rumors of the 440th Airlift Wing's demise had swirled for months, many were still confident.
The 440th puts the "air" in Fort Bragg's airborne paratroopers, providing an estimated 23 percent of airlifts for the 82nd Airborne Division and other units on post, officials said.
"There's no doubt that Fort Bragg is the center of the universe," said Air Force Lt. Col. John Gorse, acting commander of the 440th Operations Group, repeating a familiar refrain from Fort Bragg ceremonies and visits from Army and Pentagon officials. "Well, we carry (the soldiers) to the center of the universe."
But the confidence turned to shock as news spread Tuesday of an Air Force proposal that would retire the unit's fleet of C-130H Hercules cargo planes.
The move would leave the 440th Airlift Wing without planes, and officials said the unit would be deactivated.
On Fort Bragg, the 440th is the only Air Force unit that owns aircraft, officials said.
The proposal could change, and local officials and airmen are holding out hope that the 440th could be given a new lease on life.
If the airlift wing is deactivated, the process would likely begin in October, when the new fiscal year begins. Officials said it could take one or two years to fully shutter the unit.
Fort Bragg officials said the decision is out of their hands.
"While the co-location of transport aircraft and the primary airborne forces of the Army has been a staple of this installation for the last 60 years, allocation and basing of Air Force aircraft is ultimately an Air Force and Defense Department decision," said Col. Chris Karsner, chief of staff for the 18th Airborne Corps' Task Fort Bragg.
In a world without the 440th, the Air Force would continue to have a robust presence on Fort Bragg, but not with aircraft, said Air Force Brig. Gen. Jim Scanlan, commander of the 440th Airlift Wing.
The planes needed for Fort Bragg training would have to come from Charleston, S.C., Georgia or New York.
The 43rd Airlift Group would still control Green Ramp, where paratroopers prepare to deploy or sit in wait for training.
Other units, like the 18th Air Support Operations Group, the 21st Special Tactics Squadron and Air Force Special Operations Command's combat controller school would remain, too.
But the airfield would fall to the control of the Army, Scanlan said, and Fort Bragg would lose the benefits of the "joint force" model that is so important to the mission of the 18th Airborne Corps.
"There's an intangible value to having the 440th here," Scanlan said.
When Fort Bragg units need to train on airlifts, they need not look far, he said.
The 18th Fires Brigade, for example, can train loading howitzers onto the back of a cargo plane, Scanlan said. And new paratroopers don't have to travel far to orient themselves with the planes that will eventually drop them from the sky.
"It's hard to put a price tag on it," he said. "The commanders all know each other. We know our peers on the Army side and there's a certain level of trust and confidence."
"We have the capacity to flex," Scanlan said. "We have a lot more flexibility than an air crew that brings an airplane for a couple of days."
Other savings are more apparent.
Last year, the 440th Airlift Wing hosted Silver Serpent, the largest Air Force/Army Reserve mass casualty exercise in the Department of Defense.
The unit was able to do that without any travel expenses, because they held the exercise during a drill weekend and took advantage of the unique opportunities created by Fort Bragg's vast training areas.
"We're proud of the work our folks do here," Scanlan said.
That work will continue, even as uncertainty clouds the unit's future, he said.
Master Sgt. Gillian Albro, a first sergeant with the 440th Airlift Wing Maintenance Squadron, said the unit's airmen are professionals.
"We still have a job to do," she said. "It's still business as usual."
Albro is a reservist who lives in Southern Pines. In her civilian job, she has worked for U.S. Army Special Operations Command for the past decade.
But she is a relative newcomer to Fort Bragg, at least as an Air Force Reservist.
She joined the 440th Airlift Wing in May, after leaving a unit based at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro.
Like many, Albro learned of the possible deactivation of the 440th via text message, when a colleague sent her a link to The Fayetteville Observer late Tuesday.
"Part of me was shocked, considering our mission," Albro said.
Another airman, Lt. Col. Ryan Consie, said he, too, believed the unit was safe from budget cuts because of its role supporting the 82nd Airborne Division.
"I don't have all the visibility on the big picture," he said. "But I was shocked. We are positioned to support the 82nd Airborne and we are right here. I always felt that Pope was very secure because of the mission the Army has."
"I don't think people had been taking it seriously," Albro said. "We are a main part of this joint environment. I don't think people thought it would really happen."
Albro said her biggest concern is her airmen. As a first sergeant, she's there to be a sounding board, to hear concerns and to give advice.
Because the 440th is a Reserve unit, she hasn't been able to see many of her airmen but said she expects to be busy when the entire wing is at Pope Field this weekend.
"It's going around. I've seen the story a lot on social media," she said. "That's how I know word is getting around."
She said losing the unit would be tough for many to cope with.
"I'm concerned for the airmen," she said. "We live, work and play here in this area. The Air Force may lose excellent, well-trained airmen."
But Albro said she had faith in military leaders.
"They'll do what's best for us and what's best for the Air Force," she said.
Scanlan said he began to be suspicious about the unit's future last fall, when a plan to send newer C-130J model planes to Pope was delayed by six months.
"My spidey senses tingled," he said.
Gorse, among the first to move to Pope when the 440th moved from Milwaukee in 2007, said the rumors had been out for a long time, but few took them seriously.
"It was a course of action that I knew was possible," he said. "We never thought we'd leave Milwaukee, but we did."
In the past seven years, Gorse said the unit has become entrenched in North Carolina.
An estimated 990 of the roughly 1,300 airmen live in the state, he said. They've moved to North Carolina and made it their home, or were recruited from the state.
"It's a proposal and everybody's hopeful that it doesn't happen," he said.
Gorse said he would be among the last to go, too, if the unit faces its end.
"I will be here at the end," he said. "I will be the last to leave, and I'll go kicking and screaming."