These days, 55th Wing pilots like Armand and Anthony sometimes sit in the cockpits of their grounded aircraft and pretend to fly.
It's not as strange as it sounds. With their RC-135 jets parked, connected to power on the ground, the electronic warfare officers and intelligence operators who make up the bulk of the crew on Rivet Joint reconnaissance planes can practice just as well as they could in the air. The pilots and navigators can get their training later in one of Offutt Air Force Base's two busy RC-135 flight simulators.
“We can conduct a lot of training right on the tarmac,” said Armand, a captain, whose last name may not be revealed under Air Force rules because of the sensitivity of his job.
Welcome to life in the post-sequester Air Force, where flight hours are rationed and chair-flying represents the new normal.
Earlier this year, senior leaders warned of dire consequences to Air Force readiness if air wings absorbed the cut to flight hours mandated by Congress' budget deal.
“The cuts will fall heavily on maintenance and training, which further erodes the readiness of the force and will be costly to regain in the future,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told Congress in April. “As the service chiefs have said, we are consuming our readiness.”
Nearly half of the Air Force's fighter squadrons have shut down, shifting the combat burden to the remaining ones.
“A lot of other wings, the runways are dark,” said Col. Russ Mammoser, operations group commander for the 55th Wing. “Offutt Air Force Base has had very few cutbacks compared to the others.”
Senior officers here say the 55th Wing is keeping up with all of its most critical intelligence-gathering missions, said Col. John Rauch, the outgoing wing commander. The cuts hurt, but they're not devastating, he said.
“Our guys have been really creative,” Rauch said. “They're having to be more efficient.”
Rivet Joint aircraft originally had been scheduled to fly 7,615 hours this year, or 635 per month. Because of the sequester, hours have been sliced to a projected 7,003, about 584 per month, a cut of 8 percent. But the full year's cuts have been compressed into the six months between April and September.
Instead of cutting entire flights — or “sorties,” in military parlance — Rauch said the wing has cut the length of sorties from, say, seven hours to five. Aircraft spend less time in holding patterns. Sometimes more than one crew travels on a flight, swapping seats to complete training exercises.
“We're maximizing our time,” said Anthony, another Rivet Joint pilot. “We're trying to better utilize the hours that we have.”
Defense Department travel has been severely restricted, which means that exercises and air shows (including the one at Offutt) the 55th Wing normally supports have been scrubbed.
The silver lining is that some of those hours can be put back into training missions. So far, Mammoser said, nearly all of the 55th Wing's squadrons have been able to maintain the Air Force's highest level of preparation — “combat mission ready.”
This week, Rauch wraps up one year as the 55th's wing commander. Much of that year has been spent coping with budget uncertainty.
In fact, it's impossible to say exactly what the wing's budget is for 2013 because it's a continuation of last year's budget. That's how Congress has funded the Defense Department for several years now.
In April, Congress extended temporary funding. Rauch said he has been handed two sets of cuts since then.
“It will be less than 2012 without a doubt, and it will probably be even less in 2014,” Rauch said.
Besides ordering general spending cuts, the Air Force also has cut certain positions, such as base librarians and lifeguards. The lifeguard cuts forced Rauch to close two Offutt swimming pools, though some private groups came up with enough funding to reopen one of them.
And one of the largest sets of cuts is yet to come. Beginning the week of July 8, all civilian employees will be required to take 11 days off without pay before the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. It's not yet clear how severely those furloughs will affect civil engineering, the maintenance squadron or the fire department.
“We've had endless cycles of planning,” Rauch said. “There has been a lot of work to figure out how to absorb the cuts.”
Even less clear is what the future holds. Although the budget sequester was designed to be too awful for Congress to impose, it is scheduled to continue for 10 years. There has been almost no talk in Washington of changing it for 2014.
“You don't know if you're at the bottom or not,” Rauch said. “We're concerned. We're waiting to see what the future does hold.”
Perhaps a few more years of chair-flying.
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