Tyndall Air Force Base

Northwest Florida’s Tyndall Air Force Base, where pilots train to fly the F-22 stealth fighter, won’t be abandoned because of major damage it sustained in Hurricane Michael, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson vowed Monday.

Speaking to reporters at Tallahassee International Airport, Nelson sought to dismiss growing concerns that the storm-battered base outside Panama City will follow the path of what had been Homestead Air Force Base, which was heavily damaged by Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and subsequently became an Air Force Reserve base.

“I think that fear is unfounded,” Nelson said. “As a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, I can say that Tyndall will be rebuilt, and it will be an example of a modern U.S. Air Force base. That is because it is critically located right next to one of our greatest national assets, the Air Force Eastern Gulf Test and Training Range, which is the largest testing and training range for the United States military in the world.”

Nelson, a Democrat, is up for re-election and has been touring the storm damage in the Panhandle as his Republican opponent, Gov. Rick Scott, has overseen the state’s response.

On Friday, Nelson joined U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and U.S. Rep. Neal Dunn, a Republican from Panama City, in a letter to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Pentagon Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein showing support for rebuilding Tyndall.

“Each of us stand ready to work with the Air Force to rebuild Tyndall AFB and advocate for the resources needed to do so,” the lawmakers wrote.

After Andrew devastated Homestead, the Pentagon failed to get funding to rebuild the Air Force base. Later, the military and civilian workforce were reassigned, and the facility reopened as a smaller Air Force Reserve base.

A year ago, the Pentagon put a $3.4 billion value on the facilities at Tyndall — which encompasses 29,000 acres in southeastern Bay County and has about 11,000 military and civilian personnel. The Pentagon estimated the base’s annual economic impact — combining payroll, expenditures and jobs created — at $596 million.

Tyndall is home to the 325th Fighter Wing, which trains pilots for the F-22 Raptors, which are each valued at up to $339 million.

Of the 55 F-22 stealth fighters housed at Tyndall, at least 33 were sent to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio before Michael made landfall in nearby Mexico Beach with 155 mph sustained winds.

The base also houses the 601st Air Operations Center, which directs operations for NORAD Defensive Counter Air activities and responds to natural and man-made disasters.

Base command at Tyndall last week called the hit from Michael “widespread catastrophic damage,” with every structure damaged, including hangars where planes that could not be flown out — due to maintenance or safety reasons — had been sheltered.

Wilson, the Air Force secretary, said — after touring the base and meeting with 93 airmen who rode out the storm — that Tyndall will reopen when safe, but she couldn’t offer a timeline for operations to return.

“Right now, it is still not safe to do so,” Wilson said in a video posted Monday on Facebook.

Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Kaleth Wright added in the video, “I feel pretty good about the future of Tyndall” when discussing the recovery efforts.

Wilson, Goldfein and Wright issued a statement Sunday that noted no injuries occurred during the storm.

“That’s a testament to the base’s leadership and sound judgement in the face of rapidly changing storm predictions,” the statement said.

The statement also didn’t indicate when personnel would return other than to say “it will take time to recover, but we’ve been through this before and our airmen are up to the challenge.”

They added that the damage to the aircraft that remained on the ground “was less than we feared and preliminary indications are promising.”

“We also looked into each of the hangars that housed aircraft which weathered the storm for maintenance or safety reasons,” the statement said. “Visually, they were all intact and looked much better than expected considering the surrounding damage to some structures. Our maintenance professionals will do a detailed assessment of the F-22 Raptors and other aircraft before we can say with certainty that damaged aircraft can be repaired and sent back into the skies.”

The statement posted on Facebook didn’t say how many aircraft had been left on the base.

Jim Turner is a Capitol reporter for the News Service of Florida, providing coverage on issues ranging from transportation and the environment to Legislative and Cabinet politics, which are some of the areas he worked in 20 years with TCPalm in Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast. Jim grew up in Millburn, New Jersey, where he started his journalism career providing weekly reports on the high school soccer team --- of which he was a member--- to the local Millburn Item. Jim received degrees in journalism and history from High Point University in North Carolina.