SHEPPARD AIR FORCE BASE, Texas --
The airfield at Sheppard Air Force Base has long been among the busiest in the Air Force as United States and NATO partner students train to become combat pilots.
Couple that with the civilian air traffic flying in and out of Sheppard, and now the base has become the busiest joint-use air field in the Air Force, taking the top spot from Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, for Fiscal Year 2017. Several factors play a role in the annual numbers-crunch determination, but all of them have to do with controlling the air space for which Sheppard is responsible.
Leading that effort is Lt. Col. Jason Turner, 80th Operations Support Squadron commander, and Capt. Hollis Troxel, Airfield Operations Flight commander.
“From a military standpoint, there are several factors that go into the actual operations that we execute at any given time,” Turner said. “A lot of people say, ‘you’ve got this pilot shortage that you’re trying to solve,’ and part of what we’re doing is trying to maximize our production to the maximum extent given the facilities we have available to us.
“So, that’s one of the driving factors in that we’ve seen larger student classes over the last six months.”
The colonel said another component that contributed to the increase in flying activity was the loss of an auxiliary airfield in Frederick, Oklahoma, where student pilots conducted some of their T-6A Texan II training. Repairs on the runway in Frederick were completed during 2017. While repairs were underway, more T-6A takeoff and landing training missions were conducted at Sheppard.
When people think of an airfield and its purpose, they often think only of the aircraft and the pilots flying them. Troxel said there are many more behind-the-scenes functions that keep operations moving seemingly without a hitch.
“We have a multitude of Airmen in different (Air Force Specialty Codes) who are all behind the engine that you could say supports the flying mission here,” he said. “You have everything from weather Airmen; aircrew flight equipment Airmen; you have air traffic control Airmen, both in the RAPCON (radar approach control) and the tower; you also have radar airfield weather systems Airmen who are fixing that equipment and radio equipment and radar equipment that keeps us up and flying each and every day.”
Troxel said that in addition to Airmen supporting the mission, there are also civilians and contractors working alongside. He said all of those function “really are the embodiment of OSS.”
As the term “joint-use” indicates, the success of the airfield also takes a strong relationship between Sheppard, the city of Wichita Falls and civilian pilots. Troxel said Sheppard’s airfield operations serves as a support agency for civilian aircraft.
For example, he said a civilian aircraft needed to make an intentional wheels-up emergency landing about a year ago when a mechanical malfunction prevented the landing gear from lowering. Although there were several other options available to the pilot, he chose to land at Sheppard because of the support structure in place.
“That’s one of those things where it’s important for us to see, as those agencies, that these guys trust our ability to do our mission here and know that we’re going to support them when need it,” the captain said.
Turner said the Wichita Falls Regional Airport serves as a transportation hub with a potential for growth.
“It’s easy to see the value added,” he said. “When we can support them, it makes our city a better place to live. And when they support us, it empowers us to be able to do more. It’s a great partnership that we really have both ways between the civil side and the military side.”
An increase in activity often means an increase in the hours demanded from 80th Flying Training Wing instructor pilots and support functions put in to keep the flying mission going. While leadership does their best to mitigate the longer hours, Turner said Airmen in the 80th OSS continue to rise to support the wing’s mission requirements.
Another group of people who assist in getting the job done comes from 82nd Training Wing mission partners such as security forces, civil engineers, medical and more.
“Because the infrastructure itself belongs to the 82nd, we’re really here borrowing it as a tenant unit,” Troxel said. “That scope broadens very quickly when you talk to the number of people who are actually involved on a daily basis because you have security forces out here, you have a CE contractor out here, and multiple other agencies that are working day in and day out make sure this mission happens.”