Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The $100,000 Fini Flight?

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.


Steve said...

Thanks for all your excellent posts, I really enjoy reading your blog.

As for the F-4, you can see pics and video at http://www.acc.af.mil/photos/
Did they also do a special vintage SEA paint job on these phantoms?
They normally fly in the grey scheme http://www.53wg.acc.af.mil/news/story_media.asp?id=123041081\
Further googling shows they were painted in those colors for Robin olds Funeral
Never mind, they are painted that way for Heritage Flights:
I would have loved to have been there to see and hear them again!!

J.R. said...

Wasn't the B-52 air show crash from 'Shades of Blue' also a fini flight? I understand that 99.99% of pilots probably take their aircraft up for a leisurely and safe trip, and that they probably make do with whatever aircraft are available at their last base. If there's bad press about this flight, however, the Air Force will probably do what it does best: write a new regulation.

e.g. "Fini flights" shall be restricted to N minutes below K-thousand feet, and shall be limited to etc. etc. pain-in-the-ass etc., and no alcohol shall be allowed within F yards of the aircraft or pilot...

This will end up being yet another harmless tradition (see also: 'the Grog' at Dinings In) that gets stomped into historical dust by the irresponsible actions of an officer who forgot he was also a leader.

Unknown said...

J.R.--You are correct; the infamous Fairchild B-52 crash was, indeed, a "fini" flight for Col Robert Wolff, the Vice-Commander of the 92nd Bomb Wing. Wolff was added as a "safety observer" for the flight; his wife, family members and friends were on the tarmac and witnessed the tragedy.

Obviously, the Fairchild disaster could have been prevented if wing leadership had moved to discipline, or (better yet) permanently ground Bud Holland. There's no doubt that Holland was a superb stick-and-rudder pilot--perhaps the best to every fly a BUFF. But his skills completely distorted his judgment, and four people died as a result of his arrogance.

As for the "fini" flight at Langley, let me emphasize that there was nothing wrong with Gen Keys getting a final flight around the flagpole, so to speak. But bringing in three F-4s (and support personnel), at significant cost, clearly sends the wrong signal. The right thing to do was make the flight in a "local" F-15 or F-16, or (if he preferred the F-4), take a TDY to Tyndall, where the four, remaining "crewed" Phantoms are based.

Brian H said...

Signal, schmignal. Chump change, and he was a General. Suppose he'd selected an F-35. What would that have cost?

Trivial concerns concern trivial minds.

Snifter0987 said...

Never mind the cost of the flight. I'd be more interested to hear the Air Force explain the $20K given to the 27th Fighter Squadron to "spruce up" their building for Keys' retirement party. Apparently over $10K of THAT alone went to rebuilding the squadron bar.

Mind you, the building the 27th operates out of is a brand freakin' new F-22 facility, operating for under 5 years as of this month.

Must be nice to have the taxpayers chip in $20K for your retirement party.

GeorgeH said...

Those hours would be flown anyway so the pilots could maintain proficiency. The only costs to truthfully be counted towards the fini flight are those the unit would not have incurred in the normal course of flight operations, ie. the general's actual flight time.

Storms24 said...

From the video of the event, it looks like the tail was TD478 from the 82ATRS.