Military News

New unit to care for Flying Jennies at Keesler

Tech Sgt. Michael Rutherford, left, and Staff Sgt. Matthew Sladon of the 403rd maintenance group walk down the wing of a Hurricane Hunter's WC130-J at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi on Thursday March 24, 2016. The 403rd Wing will get an additional maintenance squadron to help maintain the Hurricane Hunters and Flying Jennies.
Tech Sgt. Michael Rutherford, left, and Staff Sgt. Matthew Sladon of the 403rd maintenance group walk down the wing of a Hurricane Hunter's WC130-J at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi on Thursday March 24, 2016. The 403rd Wing will get an additional maintenance squadron to help maintain the Hurricane Hunters and Flying Jennies. SUN HERALD

BILOXI -- A new unit devoted to maintenance of the Flying Jennies will be activated at Keesler Air Force Base, just a few years after the base almost lost the entire squadron.

The still-unnamed unit -- for now deemed Detachment 1 -- will include about 55 full-time Air Reserve Technicians and 90 traditional reservists under the 403rd Wing.

In total though, the Wing will add around 230 jobs.

The 403rd Wing is split between two missions: The 815th Airlift Squadron, or the Flying Jennies, and the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, better known as the Hurricane Hunters. The squadrons had 10 C-130J aircraft each and an additional squadron devoted to maintenance.

In 2013, the Wing learned it would lose the Flying Jennies. After congressional intervention, officials decided by March 2015 that the 10 aircraft could stay in Biloxi. But by that point the 815th Airlift Squadron had started downsizing and losing people, which meant the maintenance squadron also saw a reduction to keep pace.

In addition, the 345th Airlift Squadron, an active duty unit associated with the 403rd Wing, left and took its 60 maintenance professionals with it.

"We had to undo a bunch of things that were happening," said Col. Frank Amodeo, the commander of the 403rd Wing. "We had to ask ourselves, 'How do we support both missions?'"

The 815th Airlift Squadron is now hiring to return to full staffing.

And officials decided -- instead of simply restaffing the existing maintenance unit -- to create two squadrons, doubling capacity. The existing squadron will be assigned to the Hurricane Hunters, or Blue Tails for the blue stripe on the planes' tails.

An entirely new squadron will be responsible for the Flying Jennies, or Red Tails.

"There are efficiencies to being able to separate the two missions. Even though it's the same plane, it's different missions," said Col. Jay Johnson, 403rd Maintenance Group commander. "As a maintainer they look and act the same. But the need for people is always key."

Having two maintenance squadrons will allow maintenance units for both the Flying Jennies and Hurricane Hunters to be fully staffed even if both missions are active at once.

In the past, a single unit would have to be divided in two and stretched thin to accommodate two missions. That will no longer be the case, officials said.

Though the 403rd Wing has received official approval for the new unit, it still needs to hire the 145 reservists to fill the roles. The unit likely won't be fully capable until at least the end of 2017, Amodeo said.

Being involved in the creation of a unit is relatively rare in the military. It was a first for Johnson over his more than 30-year career. And it will bring people to Keesler and to the Coast, officials said.

"We're excited," Johnson said. "It brings new people to the Coast, it's an employment opportunity and this is a great place to live. And it's a great mission."

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