More Funding, But Less Flying For Navy Planes

(NORFOLK VIRGINIAN-PILOT 07 MAY 13) … Mike Hixenbaugh

NORFOLK – Earlier this year, while sounding the alarm on looming federal budget cuts, the Navy warned it would be forced to ground four of its 10 air wings – a short-term money-saver that top brass said would degrade pilot skills and cost three times more in the long run.

The service has dialed back on those warnings, and, thanks to an infusion of cash from Congress in March, the Navy believes it can avoid shutting down any air wings, which would have involved wrapping multimillion-dollar fighter jets, helicopters and other carrier-based planes in shrink-wrap and putting them in storage.

Instead, Rear Adm. Ted Branch told reporters Monday, his command is dealing with sequestration by drastically reducing flying hours to a level known in aviation circles as a “tactical hard deck.”

“We only have one really big lever to pull in Naval Air Force Atlantic, and that’s in flight hours,” said Branch, who oversees six East Coast-based aircraft carriers and the air wings that fly with them. An air wing typically consists of eight squadrons and about 65 aircraft.

To save money, Branch said, flight hours are being cut to the minimum needed to maintain baseline safety standards and efficient aircraft maintenance. The drawdown in flying hours is expected to save the Navy $2 million per month, per air wing, Branch said.

Plans call for cutting flying hours at four air wings. California-based Carrier Air Wing 2 was reduced to the “tactical hard deck” level last month after the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln entered Newport News Shipbuilding for refueling and overhaul.

Carrier Air Wing 7 will be the first East Coast-based air wing to feel the budget pinch once it returns this summer from deployment with the aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Instead of averaging 25 hours in the cockpit each month, the air wing’s F/A-18 Hornet and Super Hornet aviators at Oceana Naval Air Station will be limited to 11 hours per month, Branch said.

Pilots will spend more time in simulators, he said, but the reduction of time in the air means some pilots will fall behind in career milestones tied to training hours. The simulators are realistic, Branch said, “but it’s just not the same as the airplane.”

Carrier Air Wing 1, assigned to the Mayport, Fla.-based aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, would be next in line for reduced flying hours, Branch said. The fourth air wing with reduced flying hours is Carrier Air Wing 9, attached to the Bremerton, Wash.-based aircraft carrier John C. Stennis.

The two-star admiral said ramping up flying hours before deployments will likely cost the Navy more in the long run, but he didn’t have specific cost estimates.

For now, no air wings have been targeted for a full shutdown, but Branch left that as a possibility, depending on funding and operational demands abroad.

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