By Marlena Hartz: Freedom Newspapers
HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. — Picture a full parking lot with nary an empty space.
That is Hurlburt Field, current home of Air Force Special Operations Command and its 16th Wing in Fort Walton Beach, Fla.
On this steamy July day, the ramp at Hurlburt is at 30 percent capacity, according to AFSOC officials.
About 10 airplanes sit static on the paved section. A few yards away, several helicopters are docked in another area.
On a slow day, five to 10 aircraft land and take off from the runway, a virtual highway that measures 9,600 feet. On a busy day, takeoffs and landings can mount to more than 100, according to Tech. Sgt. Ken Libbin, who mans Hurlburt’s air tower.
“The fact is the base is full,” 16th Wing Col. J.D. Walker said.
Hurlburt is a sprawling 6,600-acre installation, originally just an auxiliary field of nearby Eglin Air Force Base. The installation has doubled in size since 1986.
Similar growth has occurred in the city it calls home, Fort Walton Beach.
More than 18,000 people roam the base. It is a city unto itself, with three gyms, numerous dining nooks, a golf course (where alligators are known to sunbathe), a baseball field, and the usual commissary or grocery store and base exchange, a department store.
In the 16th Wing alone, there are nine squadrons.
The Wing owns about 70 aircraft, some of which are stationed at other installations or deployed, officials said. Eleven types of aircraft are flown by its pilots.
The congestion sparked AFSOC’s interest in Cannon Air Force Base, an installation recommended for closure in the Department of Defense 2005 Base Realignment and Closure round.
In June, Pentagon officials announced AFSOC would assume ownership of Cannon in October 2007. The move spared Cannon from closure, sending a ripple of relief through the rural New Mexico community that relies heavily on the base for economic prosperity.
About half of the 16th Wing’s assets will shift to Cannon, Air Force officials said. Not all units will come from Hurlburt, however, officials said. Specifics of the transfer have not been released.
Overseas units might be moved to the High Plains installations, as well as units in Nevada, according to sources.
“It’s a waiting game,” said Airman 1st Class James Dickens of 16th Wing Public Affairs.
For AFSOC, the move is frugal and ends a decade-long search for a new base.
Hurlburt is currently the only Air Force Special Operations installation. Having all of its assets crammed into one spot made officials nervous.
A rash of fierce hurricanes, Ivan, Dennis and Katrina, has swept through the Gulf Coast region. Personnel and airplanes scatter to other Air Force installations to wait out the storms.
“It will be nice to have a place to go of our own when a hurricane comes,” said 1st Lt. Amy Cooper, deputy chief of 16th Wing Public Affairs.
“Our concern is for the future of AFSOC,” said Hurlburt Air Field Manager Bob Baker. “AFSOC cannot stand still. It must grow.”
“The more congested you are, the more potential there is for problems,” he said.
So far, problems at the air field have been avoided. Most at Hurlburt say they cannot recall the last major mishap, such as an aircraft collision or crash.
“Cannon looks like a marvelous opportunity for us,” Baker said.
The terrain of the region will complement AFSOC’s mission in the war on terror, since it more closely resembles the topography of the Middle East.
Hurlburt is punctuated by towering pine trees and hugged by tepid coastal waters.
The veteran air field manager, who has passed more than 17 years at Hurlburt, is pavement happy.
If things were up to him, he joked, he would have expanded Hurlburt years ago. But swamps aren’t easily covered by cement, he laughed.
He has yet to visit Cannon, but plans to in the near future.
Hurlburt Flight Commander Greg McCampbell said AFSOC will begin assessing specific alterations needed to accommodate the 16th Wing after it has assessed Clovis and Portales infrastructure, met with local civic leaders, and paved the way for its men and women to settle in the area.
“There will be a lot of Air Force money pumped into that area … for our families,” Campbell said.
“I think this will be a good thing for the community,” he said.