Montana Air National Guard has been helping patrol Hawaii's skies
HONOLULU — For the past two years and four months, a detachment of the Montana Air National Guard has been watching over Hawaii’s skies as part of an air defense “alert” mission, with two pilots ready to fly 24 hours a day, seven days a week in the event of an emergency.
The stand-in duty — needed as the Hawaii Air National Guard made a switch from the F-15 Eagle to the F-22 Raptor — initially was expected to last 15 or 16 months, but oxygen-delivery problems plagued the costly Raptors and delayed their arrival.
That meant birthdays, Christmas, holidays and other family time missed back home in Montana, but the 186th Fighter Squadron pilots and maintainers didn’t get much sympathy.
“Yeah, when we call home and it’s snowing and they are talking about scraping the ice off the windshields of the cars, the sympathy just doesn’t happen for us,” Lt. Col. Jim “Chief” Bong, an F-15 pilot and the Montana detachment commander, said with a laugh. “There are worse places to be.”
This year, though, the approximately 40 Montana Air Guard members will be back home — along with their six F-15s — for the holidays.
At 2 p.m. today, the Montana unit will officially hand back the alert mission to the 199th Fighter Squadron of the Hawaii Air National Guard, which flies and maintains the stealthy F-22s with the active duty Air Force’s 19th Fighter Squadron.
Since 1956, the Hawaii Air Guard has had an air defense mission for the state.
Lt. Col. Mark “Odie” Ladtkow, the 199th Fighter Squadron commander, is eager to get it back.
Today’s turnover is taking place on Dec. 7 zulu time, a military standard otherwise known as Greenwich Mean Time.
“It means a lot to us in the Hawaii Air National Guard,” Ladtkow said Wednesday. “We’ve missed this mission. As a National Guardsman, I serve my country, but I also serve my state, and the air defense role does both. So I’m protecting the aina and the people of Hawaii, as well as protecting the U.S. government and its assets.”
Ladtkow said it’s important that the Hawaii Air Guard is taking back the alert mission on Dec. 7 — the last time the state of Hawaii was attacked.
As of this afternoon, the 199th and its 18 Raptors (two others are always on the mainland for maintenance), will have complete responsibility for air defense again, Ladtkow said.
The Montana jets will leave on Monday, followed by remaining unit members, Bong said. He added that he’ll be among the last to leave on about Dec. 20.
Ladtkow said the Montana Air Guard “did a really good job” filling in. And Hawaii has rubbed off on the Big Sky fliers and crews.
“It’s definitely different than Montana, because right now, there’s about a foot of snow up in the mountains, but the weather’s great (here),” said Staff Sgt. David Scott, 27, who is from Fort Benton in north-central Montana.
“Everyone’s like, ‘Let’s go to Hawaii,’ and I can say I’ve been here for 21/2 years,” he said. “It’s pretty exciting.”
The Montana F-15s have steer heads on the tails of their planes, while the Hawaii F-22s have waves and mountains.
A Montana 120th Fighter Wing poster and a couple Montana state flags took up residence in the taxiway offices on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam where the F-15s parked.
“I just learned it’s a different culture. I mean, the people here are awesome. They are actually nice to everyone that’s come here,” said Scott, who had never visited Hawaii before.
Bong said he tried surfing with little luck.
“I’ve learned that I can’t surf,” he said. “But I went on a short board, I guess. Apparently, I should have gone longboard to begin with.”
About a third of the Montana airmen stayed the entire time in Hawaii, while others rotated through, Bong said.
“When we initially got here, we were only supposed to be here for 15 or 16 months, and there’s been multiple extensions,” Bong said. “So some of the people that were staying the whole time ran into other issues where they needed to go home.”
The unit filled spots where it could, and even hired on about 22 Hawaii Air Guard members.
“We’ve had to basically say, ‘Hey, we need another group for 90 days,’” or fill a job when somebody had to go home to be with a pregnant wife, Bong said.
The Montana jets flew about eight sorties a week as practice. There were no actual emergency alerts such as on Sept. 11, 2001, when Hawaii F-15s were ordered to escort incoming commercial jetliners, officials said.
There have been alert missions for visits by President Barack Obama.
A total of 18 mostly coastal Air National Guard bases have air defense commitments in the United States, most with the F-16 Fighting Falcon, officials said.
Montana did not have such a mission, and it was tapped to fill in in Hawaii. Bong said there were multiple budgets for hotels, per diem, food and housing, and transportation of the planes, and he couldn’t break down the cost for the 28-month mission.
The Hawaii Air Guard Raptor unit achieved initial operating capability status last month, meaning some of the Raptors can be deployed in support of theater operations.
It also means the Montana detachment is going home.
Scott said it took him the same amount of time to drive from Kaneohe to Hickam as it does to drive 40 miles from Fort Benton to Great Falls in Montana, where his squadron is based.
“The whole island (of Oahu) fits inside one of our little counties,” he said. “So I’m ready to get on the interstate and go 70, and not have to sit on H-1 or H-3.”