Things are starting to look up at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla.
It’s been 17 months since Category 5 Hurricane Michael flattened the Florida Panhandle installation that is home to F-22s and about 4,000 people. Restoring the base to a new-and-improved condition over the next several years is slated to cost up to $4.9 billion, all of which Congress has already appropriated for the Air Force to use.
Tyndall Airmen are accomplishing 90 percent of the missions they were doing before the storm, with 80 percent of the people and 50 percent of the facilities that were originally there. That reality will persist for the next three to five years as the base is gradually rebuilt and reorganized to begin hosting 72 F-35s by the fall of 2023. MQ-9s could follow around the same time.
Base officials must spend $3 billion in military construction on about 40 projects to create the “base of the future.” Typically, the entire Air Force handles about 30 MILCON initiatives. On top of figuring out how exactly to create a new base from scratch, Tyndall’s program management office has to decide where to put all of its construction workers and how to avoid price gouging for in-demand building resources.
“We’re hoping to get … kind of like a Conex box,” Brig. Gen. Patrice Melancon, who is overseeing the rebuild effort, said of housing construction workers. “More like a FEMA trailer. … You can scale it up pretty readily, and then scale it down as you need to.”
The F-35 zone on base and a couple of others will take longer to design and build because they are more complex, Melancon said. Military officials have awarded design contracts for all 12 zones and are trying to accelerate that work for as many as possible.
The program management office is working with the Air Force’s AFWERX group , which looks to strengthen ties with small businesses and cultivate innovative ideas among Airmen. AFWERX has been most helpful in shaping the conversation around base defense, construction logistics, operational technology, and more, Melancon said. Her office will award funds to companies with the best ideas in those areas at AFWERX’s Fusion event in June.
The community is also seeing improvements in areas like military family housing. Whereas people struggled to find affordable homes near the base in the aftermath of the storm, apartments and houses are opening up again. More than 30 recreational activities to help families deal with the stress of recovering from a natural disaster are back up and running, and kids are back in school as well.
“I think the worst is behind us in housing,” 325th Fighter Wing Commander Col. Brian Laidlaw told Air Force Magazine.
While the rest of the Air Force is mulling how best to operate from austere locations, Tyndall’s Airmen are moving in the opposite direction. Those who remained after the storm have seen their workplaces and homes transform from brick-and-mortar buildings to a series of tents, storage containers, and makeshift offices in less-damaged facilities.
Asked if Tyndall could help serve as a blueprint for how to work out of far-flung areas with little formal infrastructure, Laidlaw said being an incubator for those ideas isn’t ideal in the long run.
“We had people living in offices,” he said. “From there we went to a tent city … tents were a huge improvement over what we had before. … We graduated into modular living facilities that we took off an oil field up in Canada.”
Four of 11 dormitories are open now. About half of the 484 buildings on base were unsalvageable, and more than 300 will be demolished. Not all will be rebuilt, as officials look to consolidate. The rest can be repaired with new roofs and other quicker fixes.
Some Airmen are back in the same offices they occupied before the hurricane, Laidlaw said. Others will need to shuffle around two or three times in the next five years as their facilities are redone.
For example, the flight line was one of the hardest-hit areas of the base, and planners are taking the opportunity to design something completely new for those employees. But until that comes to fruition, people who work on the flight line will be the ones squished into new spaces and working out of modular buildings while that section becomes a contractor-laden construction zone.
“Life will be more frustrating” for those Airmen than those whose jobs are continuing on largely unchanged, Laidlaw said.
“Our Air Force base doesn’t look like any other Air Force base right now … but Airmen are happy, morale is high, and we’re getting the mission done every single day,” he said.
Melancon put it more bluntly: “Folks are cram-packed into facilities, and they’re getting the job done, but it’s in almost like deployed conditions in some cases,” she said. “You may have people that are ‘hot-desking,’ sharing desk space. … We’re getting the job done, but it is in very much less-than-ideal circumstances.”
Others are carrying on as before, hosting regular exercises with dozens of fighter jets and intelligence aircraft. Amid the push to execute the National Defense Strategy, the Air Force’s sole air battle manager school at Tyndall graduated 217 percent more students in 2019 compared to 2017, the year before the storm.
F-22 training is still split between Tyndall and nearby Eglin Air Force Base as the service works through the environmental assessments needed to move the training enterprise to Langley Air Force Base, Va. Langley and Tyndall are each doing their own studies; Laidlaw said Tyndall’s will be done around the end of the year.
The F-22 is moving out so the F-35 can move in. To be ready for the F-35, Tyndall needs at least one set of squadron operations facilities, a hangar, and maintenance facilities. It will eventually need three sets as the number of jets grows. The base also wants a new child development center and other family amenities for those pilots and crews.
“Right now I feel pretty confident that we’re going to be able to have enough of the facilities in place that we are ready for that first jet in 2023,” Melancon said. “One of the things I’m concerned about is … cost escalation. Once we get bids in, depending on how those bids compare to the programmed amount, if we’ve got to go back and ask for more money or ask for authority to reprogram, that’s potentially going to be a time delay.”
Melancon said her office is planning more firmly for the F-35 than it is the MQ-9 at the moment, but adding some extra facilities is feasible. Tyndall’s new layout aims to let different aircraft and their communities share the same infrastructure, to be more efficient instead of unnecessarily doubling up on facilities.
“We have all the resources, we have all the people in place, we just need to get continued support and top cover to allow us to execute the plan that we know is legal, moral, and ethical and follows all the rules,” Laidlaw said. “We don’t have time for bureaucratic detours, if you will, along the way.”