I discovered through the local grapevine here that Fort Hunter Liggett military training base has been developed into a drone base as well which is 1 hour and 20 minutes north of me.
The leasing agent in my apartment complex told me yesterday that an Army serviceman rented an apartment in our complex, and although he wasn’t supposed to say, he did tell her “we fight the war from Hunger Liggett. All we have to do is push a button.”
After escaping the federal chopping block, the 144th Fighter Wing of the California Air National Guard in Fresno is mobilizing to receive its newest aircraft — F-15 Eagle fighter jets — this summer.
“It’s the best jet for our mission,” wing commander Col. Clay Garrison said this week, noting that the F-15 has “an unequaled combat record of something like 84 kills to zero losses.”
The new jets are being counted on to guard the West Coast from enemies both foreign and domestic. The aircraft also will be a welcome relief to Fresno and Valley businesses that will benefit from the Fighter Wings’ $18 million-a-year operation and annual payroll of $62 million to more than 1,000 employees.
“We are intertwined with this community, and we are thankful for their support in keeping the base open,” said National Guard spokesman Senior Master Sgt. Christopher Drudge.
But the relationship, which dates back to the 1950s, nearly ended last year when the Air Force broached the idea of eliminating the 144th Fighter Wing as part of the 2013 budget.
Workers sand the tail of an F-16 which is in preparation of the plane being shipped off to another squadron. The 144th Fighter Wing in Fresno is gearing up to drop their current aircraft, the F-16 which will soon be replaced by the F-15.
A bipartisan effort by local, state and federal politicians that included Mayor Ashley Swearengin and U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein stopped the proposal.
They pointed out that closing the Fresno base would weaken homeland security, strip jobs from an area plagued with high unemployment, and waste taxpayers’ money since out-of-state military jets would have to travel farther to defend the California and Oregon coastline.
“It was a team effort,” Assembly Member Henry T. Perea, D-Fresno, said this week, recalling the discussions with military officials to keep the base open. “This may sound corny, but we were all on the same page.”
The 144th Fighter Wing dates back to 1948 in Alameda, Drudge said. The pilots who fly the aircraft are from the 194th Fighter Squadron.
The unit’s first aircraft included the T-6, B-26, C-47, L-17 and P-51. In 1954, the 194th Fighter Squadron made the transition from the piston-engine, propeller driven P-51 to its first jet aircraft, the F-86A. It was around this time that the 144th Fighter Wing relocated to Fresno.
Over the years, the aircraft got bigger and faster, but the mission remained the same — air defense, Drudge said.
The first F-16s came to Fresno on Oct. 1, 1989, according to the Air Force.
Drudge said the 144th has been preparing for years to convert from the F-16s to F-15s, which are coming from the Montana Air National Guard in Great Falls. C-130 cargo planes will replace the F-15s leaving Montana and the F-16s will transfer to Arizona, where they can be used for training, Drudge said.
In Fresno, pilots have been trained to fly the F-15s and maintenance crews are ready to care for them. The first of 21 F-15s are scheduled to arrive this summer, pending the final approval of an environmental impact study, he said.
The move will add 22 jobs with a payroll of more than $1.5 million, authorities said.
“We have a tremendous amount of talented people working here, all dedicated to serving our mission,” Drudge said.
The F-15 is a better aircraft for dogfighting. “It is bigger and faster and can go higher than the F-16,” Drudge said.
The F-15 also has larger fuel tanks, so it can stay in the air longer. In addition, it has an advance radar system to detect enemy fighters.
Garrison said the public will like looking at them. “It’s going to look awesome in (flight formation),” said Garrison, a combat pilot who flew F-16s in five tours of Iraq in Operation Southern Watch and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
But not everyone is happy with the transition.
Retired Lt. Col. Michael Buck, who lives in Colorado, once flew F-15s in Montana and sent a letter to the military criticizing the move to Fresno.
In a phone interview with The Bee, Buck said shifting aircraft from one base to another is costly for taxpayers and not needed since Fresno’s F-16s can still do the mission.
“The federal government is in deep debt,” he said. “There is no military or other valid need to spend any money to move these aircraft.”
But Damon Nelson, legislative director for Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, said taxpayers will save money because the F-16s have an old airframe. “It’s like a used car,” he said. “It’s better to have a new car than to sink money into an old car.”
In a news release, Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, said he and Reps. Nunes and David Valadao, R-Hanford, sent a letter to the Air Force reaffirming “the critical mission of the 144th.”
“The stars are aligning to get this done for the 144th, and we’re on track to bring the F-15s home to the base,” Costa said. “The men and women of the Fighter Wing work every day to keep our skies safe. I won’t stop fighting until those jets touch down in Fresno.”
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6434, email@example.com or @beecourts on Twitter.