The Guard in Our Backyard
By June C. Hussey
Spotting F-16s zip across the sky is a common sight here in Southern Arizona, but you probably don’t know the full story. The Arizona Air National Guard, 162nd Wing, is the second largest of the 54 ANG installations across the United States and its territories and serves as a training center for pilots from all over the world.
Founded in 1956, the 162nd Wing first operated out of an adobe farmhouse and a hangar that could hold three planes. Today it occupies 92 acres near Campbell Avenue and Valencia Road. Its mission is two-fold: To train domestic and foreign pilots, currently F-16 fighter jets, the workhorses of the Air Force; and, to serve as an interceptor unit responsible for the defense of airspace on our continent.
Whereas military installations like Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and Fort Huachuca carry out missions authorized by the U.S. president and commander in chief, National Guard units take their orders from the governor of each state or territory. In the event of war, the federal government’s orders take precedence, giving the U.S. full control over all the fire power at its disposal.
The U.S. Constitution separates federal and state powers for good reasons. To ensure balance, each state (and territory) supports its own militia known as the National Guard. Meanwhile, the federal government defends these United States with a powerful military branch whose personnel are trained to protect on land, at sea, in the sky and space.
Thank Brigadier General Jeffrey Butler for that brush up on American history. Now serving as commander of the 162nd Wing, Butler first came to Tucson in 1996 as a flight instructor and was hired by the ANG in 1998. Today, he is proud to call Tucson home.
“We’re really unique in that we have a lot of airplanes, 72 aircraft on base, F-16s, and we also carry an MQ-9 mission,” said Butler. An MQ-9 mission is an armed, multi-mission remotely piloted aircraft used primarily against dynamic execution targets and secondarily as an intelligence collection asset.
“The average ANG wing will have 24 airplanes. We fly 40 to 60 sorties a day, most will do 10 to 18,” Butler said.
Ever wonder who’s flying those F-16s above Tucson? According to Butler, they are mostly “kids” aged 18 to early 20s. Half are from the U.S, and half are from other countries – in all 33 international partners over the years. Currently, six foreign countries are represented at “the schoolhouse”. In total, the 162nd Wing trains 60 pilots every year, graduating 30 every six months. Some of these young students come straight out of high school while others come after college. They start their training with about 30 hours of simulator instruction. After that, they’re up in the air and soloing after 10 hours.
After their training is complete, many pilots join the U.S. Air Force. Others return to their host countries. Some stay in the ANG to train others or become part of the alert force for the continent, a mission that re-emerged after 9-11.
“9-11 set off a chain of events that have changed what we do forever,” Butler said. “We’re retrograding out of a terrorist conflict to a near peer kind of conflict where we are dealing with China and Russia more directly.
“Ever since 9-11, the 162nd Wing has been sitting alert with four airplanes ready to go with pilots and maintenance crew. That’s about 30 people on alert 24-7, 365, on call for less than 10 minutes. And we have that all over America now, so it’s a really interesting mission.”
Butler said ANG can be a great career choice. “A lot of local high school kids come here and work here until they’re 60 years old. We have a lot of 40-year retirements here. Sunnyside, Tucson High…lots of locals..”
Young people out of high school can expect to start at $20 an hour, according to Butler. Over time they can make up to $80 an hour and even more as a leader. “It’s neat to be able to provide a good paycheck for such an honorable profession,” he said.
The 162nd Wing provides 2,500 of these skilled jobs and contributes nearly $400 million in economic impact to Tucson annually.
Community support for the 162nd Wing is strong. The Air Guardians non-profit advocacy group, Tucson Airport Authority, Pima County, the City of Tucson and others all help the 162nd Wing accomplish its mission with utmost safety.
Butler added that the 162nd Wing is committed to Southern Arizona. “Since we live here, we care about our city. Safety is our top priority. We always want to take care of our town…it’s super dear to us.”