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Air Force uncertain how long devastated Tyndall will be closed; F-22s possibly damaged in hurricane
By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 12, 2018
WASHINGTON — How long Tyndall Air Force Base will remain closed is unknown after the coastal Florida installation sustained catastrophic damage from Hurricane Michael, which left nearly every building and some aircraft wrecked, service officials said Friday.
While the vast majority of Tyndall’s operational aircraft were evacuated from the base before the storm, some aircraft were left in base hangars for maintenance or safety reasons, said Erica Vega, a spokeswoman for the Air Force’s Air Combat Command. The extent of the damage to the planes was still unknown Friday, she said, but all of the hangars at the base suffered severe damage.
“We anticipate the aircraft parked inside may be damaged as well, but we won’t know the extent until our crews can safely enter those hangars and make an assessment,” Vega wrote in an email.
Many of the planes left behind were F-22 Raptor stealth fighter jets, said a defense official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. But the official did not known how many planes were at Tyndall during the Category 4 storm. Some of the fighters, which cost more than $130 million each, were likely damaged in the storm.
Other aircraft left at Tyndall included QF-4 drones, former fighter jets that have been converted into unmanned aircraft to serve as targets for training missions.
Meanwhile, Air Force personnel who rode out the storm at Tyndall, which lies on the Gulf of Mexico just between Panama City and Mexico Beach, were still assessing the storm’s impact on the base. Among their primary concerns Friday was establishing reliable communications channels with officials outside the Florida Panhandle, an Air Force official at the Pentagon said Friday.
Much of the base was left in tatters, including the housing, Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel, the chief of the National Guard Bureau, told reporters in Washington on Friday.
“One hundred percent of the housing for that base is uninhabitable,” he said, adding Tyndall and the region around it would require assistance for at least weeks.
The cleanup effort began Friday, when a service Red Horse Squadron, an engineering unit, arrived at Tyndall from Hurlburt Field, some 80 miles west of Panama City. The squadron was outfitted with heavy construction equipment.
Air Force special operators, also from Hurlburt Field, were able to open Tyndall’s airfield late Thursday to allow aircraft to deliver needed supplies to the area, an Air Force spokeswoman said Friday.
The Air Force said airmen and their families who evacuated before the storm should remain where they are for the foreseeable future and to retain contact with their chains of command.
“Our base took a beating,” Col. Brian S. Laidlaw, the commander of Tyndall’s 325th Fighter Wing, wrote in a letter to the base’s about 3,600 airmen. “By now you already know that Tyndall Air Force Base requires extensive cleanup and repairs. I will not recall you and your families until we can guarantee your safety. At this time I can’t tell you how long that will take, but I’m on it.”
Air Force officials preached patience for Tyndall evacuees, asking them to keep an eye on Tyndall and other Air Force social media for updates. Additionally, the Air Force’s Personnel Center has established a website where the latest information will be posted at www.afpc.af.mil/Hurricane.
Officials pledged the base would eventually return to normal.
“Today is better than yesterday and that is how it is going to continue to be,” Laidlaw said Friday in a statement. “We will continue to persevere.”
By Friday, Hurricane Michael, which tore rapidly across Georgia, North and South Carolina and Virginia on Thursday, was blamed for at least 11 deaths across the southeastern portion of the United States. Brock Long, the top administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said he feared the number of fatalities would continue to climb as first responders reached areas devastated by the storm.
“Bottom line, it was one of the most power storms that the country’s seen since 1851,” he said Friday during a news conference. “And I think that the TV cameras are revealing what that looks like, particularly in the Mexico Beach area, but there’s a lot of damage inland.”
Some 3,655 National Guard personnel were supporting hurricane relief efforts in Florida and Georgia on Friday, Lengyel said.
“The bottom line is … the Florida National Guard will be in place as long as it needs to be,” the general said. “And that’s the beauty of the Guard.”
Outside Tyndall, most military bases hit by Michael across the Southeast began returning to normal operations by Friday. Tyndall’s neighbor to the west, Naval Support Activity Panama City reported damage on the base but appeared to be in better shape than the Air Force post, said Navy Cmdr. Jay Sego, who conducted an assessment of the Navy base just west of Panama City on Thursday.
“At first glance, we have many trees down and some structural building damage,” he said, adding officials had not determined when it would reopen.
Aircraft evacuated from Tyndall before the storm remained at several bases across the United States on Friday. It remained unclear how long they would stay at those locations in Ohio, Texas and Louisiana.
It also remained unclear how long F-22 pilot training, which is centered at Tyndall, would be suspended. Vega, the Air Combat Command spokeswoman, declined to speculate on the program, but she said the hurricane did not impact the Air Force’s immediate combat readiness.
“The Air Force remains capable of executing its combat mission across the world with aircraft from other bases, as well as those that were evacuated from Tyndall in advance of the hurricane,” she said.
Stars and Stripes reporter Caitlin M. Kenney contributed to this report.
Trees are snapped outside Tyndall Air Force Base from Hurricane Michael in Panama City, Fla., Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018.