GUEST COLUMN: America’s Pilot Pipeline Runs Through Mississippi

Published 4:00 am Sunday, January 15, 2023

By U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker | Guest Columnist 

In the movie “Top Gun,” San Diego is referred to as “Fightertown, USA.”

With all due respect to Hollywood, our state of Mississippi has multiple fighter towns, and I recently visited two of them: Columbus and Meridian. These were the first two stops in a statewide tour I am taking of Mississippi military bases as I prepare to serve as a Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The visits were especially gratifying to me as a retired Air Force officer. I met with our airmen and base leadership, witnessed their flight operations firsthand, and heard about their successes and challenges. I also met with local community leaders and members of the defense industry who keep our forces well-supplied. With 12 military installations and countless defense suppliers across our state, Mississippi should be proud of the role we play in protecting our country.

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Columbus Air Force Base is a pilot training hub like no other. Home to the 14th Flying Training Wing, it is where one-third of all Air Force undergraduate trainees earn their wings, with nearly 500 students enrolling each year. On average, the air wing flies 260 missions a day using three types of aircraft: the T-6 (a prop plane), the T-1A (a twin-engine jet), and the T-38 (a supersonic jet). Pilots who graduate go on to fly a whole range of advanced jets, from the F-35 Lightning to the B-2 stealth bomber.

Columbus has trained a record number of pilots in the last two years. Much of this training has been done on the T-1A Jayhawk, which has been in use for over 30 years. This aging aircraft will soon be replaced by the T-7A. I am engaging closely with our pilot community, the Air Force, and industry to make sure this transition occurs as smoothly as possible. As part of the process, I am encouraging the Air Force to maintain its old fleet of T-1As until a viable plan to replace them is agreed on. It is essential that our pilots continue to receive the best training in the world even as we transition to new and better technologies.

I also visited Key Field in Meridian, home to a fleet of KC-135R “Stratotanker” refueling jets that make up the 186th Air Refueling Wing. The Mississippi Air National Guard operates eight of these aircraft, supporting missions over the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. Some of these jets are now being replaced by next-generation KC-46A “Pegasus” aircraft, and I am pushing for Key Field to receive as many of these as possible. As part of my visit, I met with our airmen and top officers, toured a tanker aircraft, and watched an aeromedical evacuation exercise. Later, in Jackson, I attended a military economic development forum with Major General Durr Boyles, commander of the Mississippi National Guard, and installation commanders from across Mississippi to discuss the needs of our defense community.

We are now entering the most dangerous time since the height of the Cold War. Russia is continuing its brutal war against Ukraine, and China is investing heavily in its own forces, including its air combat capabilities. We need to deter war with these adversaries by investing heavily and consistently in our military, sending a message of strength to the world. As I continue to tour our state’s military installations, I look forward to supporting Mississippi service members in every way I can.

U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker has served as the senior senator for Mississippi since 2007.