U.S. may put F-16s back at MacDill
By PAUL DE LA GARZA, Times Staff Writer
WASHINGTON -- F-16 jet fighters could be returning to MacDill Air Force Base in the aftermath of the wayward flight of student pilot Charles J. Bishop, defense and congressional officials say.
No decisions have been made, but the jets are among several options being considered to beef up security at the Tampa base, Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Largo, confirmed Thursday.
Young, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, also said he would instruct his Defense Subcommittee to look into the vulnerability of U.S. military bases. Young, a staunch proponent of MacDill, plans to travel to the base on Monday to review security and other issues. He said the Bishop incident added urgency to his trip.
"I just want to see where we are," Young said. "I haven't reviewed MacDill (security) for a while."
Bishop, 15, violated MacDill's secure airspace for a minute or so shortly after taking a single-engine Cessna from St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport on Saturday. The youth eventually crashed the aircraft into the Bank of America building in downtown Tampa, killing himself.
"That airplane could have been loaded with explosives," Young said. "The takeoff was from my area and it crashed into a neighboring community."
Security is a major concern at MacDill because it houses the U.S. Central Command, which is directing the war in Afghanistan, and the Special Operations Command. On Monday, the Pentagon said it would review MacDill's defenses.
Since the crash, Young said, he had been inundated with telephone calls in Washington, mainly from the news media. He said questions centered on MacDill's vulnerability.
To guard against an air threat, MacDill relies on .50-caliber machine guns.
Maj. Mike Snyder, a spokesman with the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, said base vulnerability was a question not only at MacDill but at other U.S. military bases. "That's why we want a flexible posture," he said.
Pentagon and MacDill officials insist that Bishop never posed a threat to the base. Moreover, they say the .50-caliber guns would have destroyed the Cessna he was flying had MacDill chosen to shoot it down.
Still, officials at the Pentagon and Capitol Hill say that the base commander, Brig. Gen. Wayne Hodges, is weighing a series of security options as MacDill conducts a review of the Bishop case.
While most of the options are "not for public consumption," officials say Hodges is looking at whether to request that F-16 fighter jets be based at MacDill. He is also considering whether to ask NORAD to conduct regular combat air patrols, or CAPS, over the base.
Asked if F-16s and combat air patrols were on the table, Young responded, "All of the above, plus other issues." He declined to comment when asked if surface-to-air missiles were another option.
Sgt. Chris Miller, a MacDill spokesman, said Thursday that as a matter of policy, base officials do not discuss base security.
In addition to the Central and Special Operations commands, MacDill houses the 6th Air Refueling Wing, a squadron of lumbering KC-135 tankers.
Until 1993, MacDill was also home to the 56th Tactical Training Wing, at one time the largest F-16 training wing in the Air Force, with 30 instructors, 80 jets and 250 ground mechanics. At the behest of then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission voted to move the wing to Luke Air Force Base in Arizona.
Because of logistics, a Pentagon official suggested that it would be easier for Hodges to get combat air patrols than F-16 fighters.
He said MacDill would need at least two fighter jets, maintenance crews and spare parts. To be effective, he said at least one jet would have to be in the air at all times. He said it takes at least six minutes to get a jet off the ground once the alarm has been sounded. With the Bishop flight, base officials had little time to respond.
Capt. Dave Westover, an Air Force spokesman at the Pentagon, said it was hard to say how easy or difficult it would be to assign F-16 units to MacDill.
"There are just so many variables in such a decision," he said.
And it's not cheap.
While Westover said he could not give the total cost of maintaining an F-16 fighter, he said the cost per flying hour is $4,884, including parts and fuel. That's $117,216 in just one 24-hour period.
Since Sept. 11, NORAD has conducted near-constant combat air patrols over New York and Washington. It also has conducted occasional combat air patrols over other major U.S. cities.
Indeed, NORAD dispatched two Homestead-based F-15 fighter jets to Tampa after getting wind of the Bishop flight on Saturday. The aircraft arrived after Bishop had crashed the Cessna.
The F-15s monitored the area for about half an hour before returning to base, NORAD said.
In deciding where to deploy CAPS missions, Snyer said, NORAD reviewed intelligence, determined the threat, and "employed aircraft in the best position to respond rapidly."
NORAD declined to discuss MacDill and possible requests for combat air patrols.
In the end, however, officials said no amount of defense is failsafe.
One official on Capitol Hill pointed out the sheer amount of air traffic in the bay area, including that bound for Tampa International Airport, Peter O. Knight Airport on Davis Islands in Tampa and St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.
A defense official pointed out that Bishop was in the air for nine minutes and that it would have taken an F-16 at MacDill at least six minutes to get off the ground. By the time the FAA notified MacDill that Bishop was headed in the base's direction, he was only a mile and a half from the base's restricted air space.
Young, meantime, said that there were no easy answers. "Even a jet firing off its guns," he said, "could cause damage on the ground."
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times
local news desks