Air Force, Guard learn from each other on S.C. base

Capt. Buck Pennington's military orders to move to McEntire Joint National Guard Base came as a surprise.

Pennington didn't understand why the Air Force was sending him, an active duty officer, to a Guard base in South Carolina.

Was this a career killer?

"At first, there was a lot of concern because I hadn't heard of this before," Pennington said.

Pennington's assignment came through a new Air Force idea called "active association."

The 169th Fighter Wing at McEntire is the Guard's first fighter unit to go through the program. The plan is to assign regular Air Force officers and enlisted airmen to National Guard units.

The Air Force hopes airmen from both sides learn from each other and that the new arrangement improves efficiency during deployments.

Through the program, an additional 150 airmen will be assigned to McEntire. Of those, nine will be pilots and the rest will be crew chiefs, mechanics and operations officers.

Pennington arrived about six weeks ago with assurance from his bosses that the McEntire assignment would be good for him.

Already Pennington has discovered "a lot of things from McEntire I expect to take to the active-duty side."

For example, a ground crew at McEntire will finish its work then help another.

"At McEntire, they help each other out, and they all get back to the shack at the same time," he said.

The Air Force hopes the plan to mesh regular and Guard airmen benefits the entire service.

The theory is that National Guard pilots and ground crews are more experienced and they will be able to teach younger, active-duty airmen, said Col. Keith Coln, wing commander.

In the National Guard, pilots and air crews stay in one place throughout their careers, honing skills by doing the same job for years. Guardsmen also tend to be older.

In the regular Air Force, airmen move every two or three years and often are pulled to take desk assignments.

"We're old and experienced," Coln said. "We want to pass along our knowledge and experience to these younger people. Hopefully, we'll mentor them into being better airmen."

The Air Force also hopes the new arrangement makes Guard deployments more efficient, Coln said. The Air Force has downsized, but it still has the burden of repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Air Force follows a schedule when rotating units through combat zones. Units take turns deploying every 20 months for 120 days. Regular Air Force units have enough airplanes and people to cover their shifts.

When a Guard unit goes on its 120-day mission, it typically borrows from other Guard units to round out its numbers, Coln said.

Part-time guardsmen deploy only 40 days at a time, while a regular airman can serve the entire 120 days overseas. With the regular Air Force personnel on board, the 169th will not have to find additional people to fill its 120-day rotation, Coln said.

"It's going to allow us to be way more efficient," he said.

The new mix of Guard and regular airmen will have its first combined deployment in early August for a training mission.

The 169th asked to be the first fighter wing to get the active duty airmen, hoping to gain an edge in the competition to become the first Guard unit to fly the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, Coln said.

"Our motto is 'Semper Primus,"' he said. "Always first."

Since arriving at McEntire about two months ago, Staff Sgt. Jason Bass has noticed the officers and enlisted airmen trust each other because they've worked together for years. They know how to do their jobs and when to do them, he said, so no one is micromanaging the work.

"The only thing I hope we don't do is come in and mess that up," Bass said.

As Hudson pulled his jet onto the runway, Villines waved him along and then saluted.

The scene was the "active association" in action. Guard and regular crews working together on a mission.

"We all wear the same uniforms. We wear the same patches," Coln said. "We share the same passions."