After almost losing them, Keesler Air Force Base is celebrating the famed Flying Jennies’ return to full operational capability in Mississippi.
Members of the 815th Airlift Squadron fly the large, cargo-carrying C-130J airplanes. The squadron is a tactical airlift unit in the Air Force Reserve’s 403rd Wing.
The C-130J is not only “a hard-working and practical pack mule” that transports supplies for military operations, said an Air Force press release, it’s also like a phoenix rising from the ashes.
Talk of deactivating the 73-person squadron and moving the 10 planes to a different base started in 2012, as part of a plan to cut defense spending. The squadron received a deactivation notice in November 2013, which meant a hiring freeze. The squadron was in limbo until talks revived again in early 2014, when the Air Force Reserve planned to decrease manpower 4.7 percent to fit the 2015 budget.
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Mississippi lawmakers Sens. Thad Cochran, Roger Wicker and Rep. Steven Palazzo fought the Flying Jennies’ removal. Cochran has long served on the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, and he now serves as chairman. Wicker has been a member of the Senate Committee on Armed Services since 2008.
The lawmakers said in a press release they pressed the Air Force to produce a thorough cost analysis and justification, and they used meetings, hearings, briefings and legislative actions to convince the Air Force to rescind the deactivation order and keep the unit in Mississippi.
The Air Force abandoned attempts to deactivate and relocate the squadron in 2015, and the Flying Jennies began to restore its personnel and capabilities.
On Friday, the Flying Jennies were deemed officially combat ready.
“There have been a lot of challenges, and an enormous amount of work has been done by the squadron to get to this point,” squadron commander Lt. Col. Stuart Rubio said in the press release. He was assigned to the 403rd Wing in January 2016 to assist with rebuilding the unit, including recruiting new personnel and establishing their re-training program.
Rubio compared rebuilding the squadron to a football team. He said the last year and a half has been similar to being in a summer training camp without that game to look forward to. But now the 815th team is ready for action.
“The reason we train is so we can do the mission,” said Rubio.
The squadron now uses C-130J Super Hercules, the newest of the C-130 fleet, said Staff Sgt. Tony DiStefano, 815th AS loadmaster.
“This is the cargo-specific version of the aircraft,” he said in the press release. “It can carry quite a few tons of cargo. We can load Humvees and smaller vehicles into the back, and we can bring them anywhere around the world.”
The C-130J can land on a dirt or gravel airstrip only 3,000 feet long. But if there isn’t a safe place to land, cargo can be airdropped to a location, Rubio said.
On Friday, the Flying Jennies flew a symbolic, low-level tactical flight, where the crew practiced airdrops, flew with night vision goggles and performed other tasks to prepare for missions in a deployed location.
“It’s a proud moment for us,” said DiStefano. “We’re fully operational again. We have full mission capabilities, and it’s a great place to be.”
The three lawmakers also expressed their support.
“Keeping the Flying Jennies at Keesler makes sense on operational and budget grounds. I commend the Air Force for standing up this unit ahead of schedule, and remain confident the Flying Jennies will continue to protect our national security interests,” said Cochran in a press release.
“The 815th Airlift Squadron and its C-130Js have been a great asset to the Air Force, Keesler Air Force Base, and our Gulf Coast community. I am glad the Air Force has completed its plan to restore full combat mission capability to this distinguished unit and that the ‘Flying Jennies’ will continue to stay right where they belong — in Mississippi,” Wicker said.
“Over the past several years, I have fought tirelessly to ensure the ‘Flying Jennies’ remained active and in South Mississippi. This report from the Air Force only further reestablishes what we already knew to be true, that keeping the squadron at Keesler Air Force Base is in fact the right decision,” Palazzo said.