It's a tradition almost as old as military aviation itself: the final or "fini" flight, marking the end of a pilot or crew member's flying career. Upon completion of the flight, the aviator is traditionally "hosed down" by family and colleagues, then presented with a bottle of champagne. It's a memorable and fitting tribute for those who have spent their careers in military aircraft.
There was a "fini" flight at Langley AFB, Virginia last Friday for the outgoing commander of Air Combat Command (ACC), General Ron Keys. After 40 years of active duty service, General Keys will retire next month. The final flight marked one of his last official acts as leader of the Air Force's largest command. At a change-of-command ceremony today (2 October), he will transfer leadership of ACC to General John D.W. Corley, who previously served as the Air Force's Vice Chief of Staff.
For his final fight as an Air Force pilot, General Keys selected the venerable F-4 Phantom II. The choice was understandable; as he recounted for the Newport News (VA) Daily Press, the F-4 was the jet that took him to war in Vietnam and brought him home again, against long odds. While learning to fly the Phantom, the Air Force eliminated air combat training for his class, the result of an accident involving another F-4 crew in California. The decision left Keys--and his fellow crew members--poorly prepared for aerial combat over North Vietnam. He recently told an Air Force interviewer that he learned those skills largely by "osmosis."
"I flew a lot - on the wing of old, experienced guys," he said. "I watched, learned and absorbed."
And, by all accounts, Keys was a fast learner. He eventually became an F-4 instructor pilot at the U.S. Air Force Weapons School, and later, Commandant of that institution, during a career that culminated in command of ACC.
Unfortunately, General Keys "fini" flight is creating something of a stir, raising questions about its cost and justification. While the flight was completed in a safe, professional manner, it was an expensive proposition for the Air Force--and the U.S. taxpayer. Preliminary estimates suggest that the F-4 excursion might have cost $100,000, based on operating costs for the service's few remaining Phantoms, and associated expenses for dispatching planes and crews to Virginia, in support for the final flight.
Officially, the Air Force hasn't provided a cost breakout for last Friday's flight. Open source data indicates that early operating projections for the F-4 were pegged at $1441, a total that includes $896 for each flying hour and another $545 in maintenance-related expenses. Adjusted for inflation, those hourly operating costs (from 1965) would now total $9052, in 2006 dollars.
While that figure struck us as a bit high, other sources suggest that the inflation-adjusted estimate may provide a good, ballpark projection. The Collings Foundation, a non-profit, educational organization based in Texas and Massachusetts, operates a small fleet of vintage aircraft that commemorate aviation history. As part of its "Vietnam Memorial Flight," the foundation restored (and operates) an F-4D Phantom, similar to the aircraft flown by General Keys. The foundation reports that its F-4 operating costs have reached $9,000 an hour, "with no signs of reduction."
However, the foundation's operating expenses may be slightly higher than those of the Air Force, which can utilize spare parts from its aircraft "bone yard" in Arizona, and gain additional savings through long-term maintenance contracts for its remaining F-4s. While the service has only four Phantoms that are still configured for flight by pilots, it has scores that have been converted into target drones, and guided by remote control. Both Phantom variants are maintained and operated by the same contractor, BAE Systems.
Still, it's not as cheap to operate an F-4 in 2007 as it was in 1967. And, from what we're told, General Keys fini flight was a significant operation. At least three F-4s were flown to Langley for the flight, and two of them reportedly participated in the event (the third served as a spare).
As for the actual cost, if the Air Force is paying $9,000 for each hour of Phantom operations, the bill fini flight exceeded $100,000. That's $9K/per hour/per jet. Figure a two-hour flight from Tyndall AFB, Florida (where the aircraft are based) to Langley, and a two-hour return flight. Add in another hour of flight time for two of the Phantoms (during the actual retirement mission), and the total reaches $126,000. Please note that this estimate does not include travel expenses for ground crews, or hotel and per diem pay for the contractors who flew the jets to Langley.
On the other hand, let's say the cost-efficient USAF can fly its remaining Phantoms at a lower cost that private aviation groups. Being charitable, we'll factor in a 25% savings, putting the cost per flying hour at $6750. Using that rate, the fini flight would cost "only" $94,500, but (again) we're not including travel and per diem expenses for contractor personnel. Adding in those expenses--which the contractor passes on to the Air Force--the bill for General Keys final flight would be just under $100,000.
In a $500-billion defense budget, $100K for a fini flight may sound like chump change. But, at a time when the Air Force is strapped for cash, spending tens of thousands of dollars on a "fini flight" sends the wrong signal.
There is no doubt that General Keys deserved a final sortie before retirement, in recognition of five decades of dedicated and faithful service to the nation. But there were less extravagant methods for sending him off into retirement. The 1st Fighter Wing at Langley has two-seat F-15s, and Vermont Air National Guard F-16s are stationed at the base as well. According to his biography, General Keys has flown both types of aircraft during his career. He also had the option of conducting his "fini flight" at Tyndall, and saving the cost of flying the jets--and support personnel--to Virginia. But, that would make it more difficult for family and friends to attend, so the mission was staged at Langley.
Ron Keys will be rightfully remembered as a superb Air Force officer and leader. But from our perspective, that final F-4 flight in Virginia was both expensive and unnecessary, adding a regrettable blemish to an otherwise stellar career. As the Chief would say, leadership means doing the right thing, all the time--until the very end. By that benchmark, General Keys came up a bit short.