CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Lt. Col. Rob Roningen, commander of the 148th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, Minnesota Air National Guard, is one of the F-16 pilots currently on duty in Hawaii. The Minnesota Air National Guard is spending their holiday in Hawaii guarding isle airspace after structural concerns grounded the Hawaii Air National Guard's F-15s and all F-15s nationally.
New Guard aids over isles
F-16 pilots patrol skies around Hawaii after 21 F-15s were grounded
Six F-16 Fighting Falcons from the Minnesota Air National Guard have been protecting Hawaii skies since early November after the Air Force grounded hundreds of F-15s because of structural defects.
The Hawaii Air National Guard's 21 F-15s haven't flown since Nov. 3, a day after an F-15 crashed in Missouri. An Air Force investigation found a flaw in the metal rails that hold the fuselage together.
The mission of the Air National Guard is to respond to hijacked airlines, errant Cessnas and any unknown aircraft.
"It (the mission in Hawaii) is really not much different," said Col. Gerry Ostern, commander of Minnesota's 179th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron. "All the procedures are the same. All you're doing is flying over a lot more water than you're normally used to."
Nationwide, about 450 F-15s are not flying, causing a strain on the national defense network. Units that fly F-16s have been stepping in, with the Vermont Air National Guard covering the entire Northeast, the California Air National Guard covering the entire West Coast, the Illinois Air National Guard filling in over Louisiana, and the Minnesota Air National Guard in Hawaii.
While resources have been thinned, defense officials say air defense has not been compromised.
Ostern agreed. "It is a little bit of strain, but we have plenty of personnel and plenty of equipment to take care of both places," he said.
Brigadier Gen. Peter Pawling, commander of the 154th Wing, Hawaii Air National Guard, said the biggest impact on the Hawaii Air National Guard is the loss of training.
"They (Hawaii pilots) would much rather be flying," Pawling said. "It's going to take more work for them to get their combat skills retooled again. It's much easier to keep it on the edge than have to back up a little bit."
When the F-15s will be cleared to fly again is not clear, but Pawling is hoping that could be sometime this week.
In the meantime, the Hawaii Air National Guard members keep busy practicing on simulators and mechanics are busy with inspections of the planes. So far, the Hawaii Air National Guard has finished all the checks required, and 13 F-15s have passed the latest set of inspections. The remaining planes have been checked and are awaiting clearance.
Hawaii Air National Guard will begin replacing its fleet of F-15s with the next generation F-22 Raptors in late 2010, Pawling said.
For the 55 or so members of the Minnesota Air National Guard in Hawaii, their mission meant a sudden departure from family during the holiday season.
Lt. Col. Rob Roningen, commander of the 148th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, Minnesota Air National Guard, found out in early December that he would be leaving his family and arrived in Hawaii Dec. 17.
"When you leave Minnesota in the winter it's definitely a challenge because you have to line up somebody to plow the snow," he said, adding that his hometown received 28 inches of snow last week. His two teenage sons have had to step up and shovel snow and do more then they're used to. "It's good for them," he said.
But Roningen can't say Hawaii has been tough duty.
Airman 1st Class Ben Butcher, a weapons loader with the 148th, also isn't raising many objections to his assignment here.
"I can't really complain about it. It got me out of cold Minnesota," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.