Hickam cargo jet wing melds Air Force and Guard
As a commercial pilot, Mike Compton ferries passengers around the islands for Hawaiian Airlines. But when he dons a Hawaii Air National Guard flight suit, Col. Mike Compton flies cargo planes to Iraq.
Air Guard crew members like Compton have long worked closely with the active duty Air Force, serving in places from Vietnam to Afghanistan. Now this cooperation is on the cusp of growing further on homeland bases.
Starting Wednesday, pilots from the Hawaii Air National Guard and active-duty airmen will fly C-17 cargo planes side by side.
And Guard maintenance crews will fix the jets right next to their active-duty counterparts.
The arrangement -- one of the first like it in the nation -- comes as the military strives to squeeze the most out of its defense budget by maximizing use of its Air Guard. As the Pentagon spreads the concept to other states, the way the two sides integrate in Hawaii could serve as a template for other units around the country.
"Our strengths of the active duty and the Guard complement each other," said Compton, who is helping coordinate the integration for the Guard.
The experiment will publicly launch this week when the first of eight C-17 jets assigned to Hickam Air Force Base arrives from California. Two pilots -- one active duty and the other Hawaii Air Guard -- will fly the cargo plane to its new home.
Highlighting the significance of the new deployment to the state, Gov. Linda Lingle will be aboard the first C-17 that lands at Hickam. She and others will board at the Marine Base across the island in Kaneohe.
Commanders -- both active duty and Guard -- agree that one of the chief benefits of the sharing will be the extra staff the Guard will provide the Air Force at a low cost.
Compton says Air Guard crews require about one-third the funds of active-duty troops because they have civilian jobs and are not on a full-time military payroll. Still, they fly and service planes for the Air Force about five to seven days per month and another two weeks each year. And when the Air Force needs them for a longer commitment, they can be summoned for duty.
To top it off, many Guard pilots and maintenance crews work for commercial airlines and so have little trouble keeping their skills up to date.
"With the Guard and Reserve, you get quite a bit of capability for a fairly cheap price," said Col. William Changose, commander of the active-duty 15th Airlift Wing at Hickam. "Day to day, the U.S. taxpayer is paying almost nothing, but when I need them, we can call them up."
The two sides have already started integrating at Hickam. Maintenance crews from the two units have set up shop inside the same building so they can work seamlessly. When the C-17s arrive, the active airmen and Guard will share the planes, hangars and a high-tech C-17 flight simulator.
Airmen from the Air Force and the Guard also have a common dining room, Compton said, "because people who eat together, drink together, work together better."
The two sides will preserve their separate chains of command, except during missions in the field, when rank regardless of affiliation will be observed.