The F-15 Eagle pilots of the Montana Air National Guard are taking on a new job thousands of miles from the expansive “Big Sky Country” where they live.
They’re defending Hawaii.
The strategic importance of the archipelago that makes up the 50th state is something everyone in Hawaii understands. To make sure memories stay strong, no one has ever repaired the Hale Makai Building, alias Building 1102, at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam (formerly Hickam Air Force Base) which is home to the headquarters of Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) and is still marked with perforations where cannon shells struck during the Japanese attack on Dec. 7, 1941.
In recent decades, guarding Hawaii’s skies has been the job of the 199th Fighter Squadron, “Hangmen,” part of the 154th Wing, Hawaii Air National Guard (ANG), at Hickam. But beginning Aug. 6, 2010, the 199th will be taking a breather while it converts from the F-15 Eagle to the F-22 Raptor – becoming the only ANG unit to operate the superfighter – a changeover that may take as long as two years.
During the transition, the 186th Fighter Squadron, “Vigilantes,” part of the 120th Fighter Wing of the Montana ANG based in Great Falls, will maintain a rotating force of six F-15s and supporting airmen to carry out the defensive duty that is now called the Air Sovereignty Alert mission (ASA).
“Our operations and maintenance personnel will set up shop at Hickam, with Montana F-15s being rotated back to Montana when major periodic maintenance is required,” said Lt. Col. Michael Buck, callsign “Alien,” who commanded the 186th until May. “Two pilots from the 186th FS will be based at Hickam. Lt. Col. Steven deMilliano, callsign ‘Two Dogs,’ is the Alert Detachment commander, and Capt. Carol J. Kohtz, callsign ‘Drone,’ as in ‘unmanned aircraft,’ will serve as the deputy commander. Other 186th FS pilots will rotate into the alert site for two-week stretches and then return to Montana to compete routine training flights to maintain their proficiency in the F-15 mission.” The Montana F-15s will stand ready on 24 hour alert against threats to the Hawaiian Islands.
Pilots will deploy from Montana for 16- day periods, while Great Falls-based maintenance troops will remain in Hawaii throughout the duration of the deployment.
The new duties in Hawaii are only the latest challenge for the “Vigilantes.” Until recently, they operated the F-16C Fighting Falcon. They deployed frequently to overseas trouble spots and were the first fighter squadron based at Balad Air Base, Iraq, in 2004, returning there in 2008, in addition to pulling duty at Kunsan Air Base, Korea. The Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC) decision to switch from one fighter to another “posed challenges for us,” said Buck.
According to the current 186th commander, Lt. Col. John Garry Rice, callsign “Chickenhawk,” the Montana squadron completed its conversion to F-15s earlier this year, one year ahead of schedule, despite a delay imposed by a lengthy F-15 grounding. Rice said successfully transitioning from one fighter to another helps the Montana fliers to know what their Hawaii-based brethren are going through.
The Hawaii squadron has so far received two F-22s that will be used initially as ground trainers, said spokesman Lt. Col. Charles Anthony. The remaining F-22s are expected to start arriving at the beginning of next year. The Hawaii ANG flew F-15s until recently, so the Eagle is a familiar sight at Hickam.
It’s unclear if the Raptors will fly again soon, but they put on a spectacular flying demonstration over Oahu on July 9 when the planes were shown off to the Hawaiian public for the first time. “This F-22 will be the major instrument of deterrence in this part of the world and I think Hawaii’s selection determines that we are capable of doing it,” Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, told reporters. Inouye is a strong supporter of the defense community and was instrumental in making the 199th the only Guard squadron that will “own” Raptors.
Meanwhile, the men and women from Montana will be on the job.