Inside the Capitol

Friday, July 03, 2009

7-8 "Tacos" In Trouble

Syndicated Columnist

SANTA FE -- The Pentagon plans to shut down the proud New Mexico Air National Guard. The fighter pilots of the Air Guard have served the nation honorably in wars since the 1950s.
But as methods of warfare have changed, fighter planes are no longer needed to the extent they once were. Air-to-air combat is nearly a thing of the past as our enemies have little or no air forces. Air support for troop movements still is needed but not to the extent it once was.
So the "Tacos" are scheduled to lose their 21 aging F-16 Fighting Falcons next year in a Pentagon early retirement program. The next-generation F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighters won't be available to guard units until seven years later.
Meanwhile, the unit must have a mission or it will be shut down completely. That means about 1,100 jobs located at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque. The fighter wing currently pumps about $25 million in to the local economy.
Other missions are available such as C130 cargo planes, CV 22 helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles, intelligence, cyber warfare and teaching the Iraqi Air Force to fly turboprop Beechcrafts. The Air Force is said to desperately need Guard units to take those missions.
But the current crop of jet jockeys wants fighter planes or nothing, according to inside sources of blogger Joe Monahan. It's believable. Fighter pilots are a special breed as anyone who has watched movies like "Top Gun" would know.
Stepping down is hard to take. But it almost certainly has to happen if the Tacos are to have any chance of surviving. Rep. Martin Heinrich is leading the effort to find the Tacos a new mission. Kirtland is in Heinrich's congressional district and he fortunately serves on the House Armed Services Committee.
Heinrich's strategy is to keep some kind of flying mission -- not necessarily fighters -- so they can stay intact until new fighter aircraft become available.
That doesn't please the pilots but time is getting short. The Air Force's plan has been known for some time. It was a crucial blunder not to get this taken care of when powerful Sen. Pete Domenici was still in the Senate. But the pilots run the organization and they wanted nothing but fighter planes.
Heinrich recently has succeeded in adding a provision to the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act prohibiting the retirement of the Taco's F-16s until the Air Force submits a detailed plan that includes a follow-up mission for the 150th Fighter Wing.
Heinrich has been able to guide that provision through the House but its likelihood of surviving through the Senate, a conference committee and a presidential line-item veto may be shaky.
And even though Heinrich only inherited the situation, he will be blamed if the Tacos crumble.
I was in the New Mexico Air Guard in the early '60s. Back then we were called the Enchilada Air Force. As I recall we got the name when we used to go to Volk Fiend at Camp McCoy, Wisconsin, for a two week summer camp every summer.
We made ourselves quite popular with the locals throughout the area. Our cooks would fix enchiladas for our hosts and several times Al Hurricane, Tiny Morrie, Baby Gaby and some of the other Night Rockers in our unit would play at barn dances in the area. They were huge hits.
Joe Monahan related in his blog recently that our nickname changed when our unit was activated in 1968, during the Viet Nam War. The air traffic controllers over there found the "Enchilada" call sign too long and hard to pronounce so our guys changed it to "Taco."
Thanks, Joe. That answers a question I've had for over 40 years. My wife and I moved from Albuquerque to Santa Fe in 1965 and I lost all contact with Air Guard members. I'd never been able to figure how or why enchiladas changed to tacos.
WED, 7-08-09

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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