»This Air Force base was no match for the hur­ri­cane,

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - - FRONT PAGE - Dave Philipps

As Hur­ri­cane Michael tore across the Flor­ida Pan­han­dle on Wed­nes­day, shred­ding build­ings and homes in its path, the mostly empty Tyn­dall Air Force Base braced for a fe­ro­cious im­pact.

A wind gauge surged to 130 mph, and then broke. Hangars where Air Force jets have shel­tered dur­ing past trop­i­cal storms be­gan to groan and shud­der be­fore be­ing ripped to rib­bons.

The eye of the storm cut di­rectly over the base, which sits on a nar­row spit of land that juts into the Gulf of Mex­ico, about a dozen miles south of Panama City. Trees bent in the howl­ing wind, then splin­tered. Storm­proof roofs only a few months old peeled like old paint and were scraped away by the gale. An F-15 fighter jet on dis­play at the base en­trance was ripped from its foun­da­tion and pitched onto its back amid twisted flag­poles and up­rooted trees.

When it was over, the base lay in ru­ins, amid what the Air Force called “wide­spread cat­a­strophic dam­age.” There were no re­ported in­juries, in part be­cause nearly all per­son­nel had been or­dered to leave be­fore the Cat­e­gory 4 hur­ri­cane’s land­fall. Com­man­ders still sift­ing through mounds of wreck­age Thurs­day could not say when evac­u­a­tion or­ders would be lifted.

As the mon­ster storm bar­reled to­ward the Flor­ida coast, the Air Force worked to min­i­mize pos­si­ble de­struc­tion. Tyn­dall is home to the largest group of F-22 stealth fighters — 55 of them, each cost­ing a dizzy­ing $339 mil­lion. The stealth fighters and about 17 trainer jets were flown to safety, to Wright-Pat­ter­son Air Force Base in Ohio. Planes from nearby Hurl­burt Field and Eglin Air Force Base also fled in­land in the days be­fore the storm.

The Air Force’s strat­egy to side­step risk was starkly dif­fer­ent from the Ma­rine Corps’ de­ci­sion last month to face off against Hur­ri­cane Florence and not evac­u­ate Camp Le­je­une in North Carolina. At the time, Camp Le­je­une’s com­man­der, Brig. Gen. Ju­lian Al­ford, said he had the sup­plies and equip­ment to brave the storm, not­ing, “fi­nally, we have Marines who will be ready to as­sist and take care of each other.”

But the Air Force’s mis­sion is cen­tered on del­i­cate and as­tro­nom­i­cally ex­pen­sive air­craft, and a cul­ture that thinks lit­tle of trav­el­ing sev­eral hun­dred miles in an af­ter­noon. So when storms threaten, the force tends to fly rather than fight.

“Wing com­man­ders make the call,” said Maj. Malinda Sin­gle­ton, an Air Force spokes­woman. “If there is a po­ten­tial threat they are pre­pared to min­i­mize dam­age.”

Only a few planes se­cured in hangars and a small “ride out el­e­ment” of air­men stayed be­hind.

Its af­ter­math was both dev­as­tat­ing and re­mark­able, with he­li­copter footage of the base Thurs­day morn­ing show­ing hangars that had eas­ily sur­vived past storms now rid­dled with gap­ing holes. At least three twin-en­gine pro­pel­ler planes owned by a con­trac­tor and used for train­ing were buried in de­bris from the wreck­age of the largest hangar, which also housed at least five QF-16 jets — re­tired fighters that have been stripped down and turned into drones and used as tar­get prac­tice.

In a Face­book post late Thurs­day, base lead­ers said many of the build­ings were “a com­plete loss.” The ma­rina, its struc­tures and docks were also de­stroyed. Power lines and trees blocked nearly ev­ery road, and util­i­ties and elec­tric­ity had not been turned back on.

The de­struc­tion of an Air Force base can be matched in scope only by the pound­ing that Hur­ri­cane An­drew gave Homestead Air Force Base, just south of Mi­ami, in 1992. That Cat­e­gory 5 storm, with winds es­ti­mated at 150 mph, smashed hangars and left bat­tered fighter jets and mam­moth cargo planes in pieces on the run­way. Nearly all the sur­viv­ing planes and per­son­nel were re­as­signed to other bases. Two years later, it re­opened as a smaller, Air Force Re­serve base.

The Air Force was un­able to say Thurs­day when Tyn­dall might re­sume op­er­a­tions. Other Air Force and Navy bases in the area, which were spared the brunt of the storm, re­opened in a limited ca­pac­ity Thurs­day.

Tyn­dall, where about 3,600 per­son­nel are sta­tioned, sits on 29,000 acres that in­clude un­de­vel­oped woods and beaches, as well as stores, restau­rants, schools, a bowl­ing al­ley and quiet, tree-lined streets with hun­dreds of homes for both ac­tive-duty and re­tired mil­i­tary. Video footage cap­tured the ruin there, too: The storm skinned roofs, shat­tered win­dows, and tossed cars and trail­ers like toys, trans­form­ing the base into a trash heap. Mul­tistory bar­racks build­ings stood open to the sky.

JOE RAE­DLE / GETTY IM­AGES

A dam­aged air­plane hanger can be seen on the grounds of Tyn­dall Air Force Base af­ter Hur­ri­cane Michael passed through Mex­ico Beach, Flor­ida, this week. The hur­ri­cane hit the area pack­ing cat­e­gory 4 winds and caused ma­jor dam­age.

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