Sunday, April 13, 2014

Fresno Air Guard wows crowd

 Seven-year-old Alex Loyd could hardly contain himself after checking out the cockpit of an F-15 fighter jet in Fresno with its pilot on Saturday.

"This thing is amaaazing! I love the brownish color. It kind of matches chocolate."

Alex's visit to the Air National Guard base was a family affair. He came to the 144th Fighter Wing's open house — the first in nearly two decades — with 17 members of his family, including his grandpa, who retired from working at the base a few years ago.

Thousands poured onto the 80-acre base alongside Fresno Yosemite International Airport. This year is the base's 60th anniversary.

Alyssa Carmona, 8, came dressed in bright pink and ready for roaring engines with a pair of large earmuffs. They came in handy when a few F-18 jets from Lemoore Naval Air Station took flight.

Jumping up and down clapping her hands, Alyssa exclaimed, "They are fantastic!"

Alex still was marveling at the F-15 he toured. "This is actually the amazingest plane I've seen all year. This is the greatest plane I've seen since I was barely born."

His favorite features? A star painted on its side and a "very cool badge."

"I'm going to join this base when I grow up and I'm going to pilot one of those planes," Alex said. "I want to ride on one of these hot rod babies ... They keep the world safe."

Senior Master Sgt. Chris Drudge was excited to welcome the community back to the base.

"Once 9/11 hit, certain security restrictions came on board. We had to put up the 'great wall' and it became a kind of mystery what we do here," Drudge said of a 24-foot wall on the base which runs alongside McKinley Avenue, built soon after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

The base is home to about 20 jets tasked with California's homeland security, and is the only air national fighter wing in the state.

"There's so much we do," Drudge said of the base's many departments, including things like civil engineering and firefighting. "We're just like the Air Force but on a smaller footprint."

But the 144th Fighter Wing's special mission is primarily this: ready at a moment's notice to protect the U.S. from an invasion, Drudge said.

Emma Loyd, 5, was reassured by that thought as she looked at the missiles on an F-15.

"If there's a bad guy plane, it can shoot it," Emma said.

Since last fall, the base has been swapping out its F-16 planes, which have been used for about 24 years, with F-15s. While the planes are older, they're easier to repair which will help extend the life of the aircraft, Drudge said.

Along with the F-15s and F-16s on display Saturday, visitors checked out an Army Blackhawk and sheriff's helicopter, a few old Air Force planes and a half-dozen private planes.

Bill Hoffrage, 73, of Madera displayed one: His bright yellow Boeing-Stearman Model 75 was used in the 1930s and '40s as a training plane for members of the Army and Navy, he said.

Hoffrage said he wants to leave an appreciation for the plane's "heritage and where it came from and what it did — it trained a lot of pilots."

Col. Clay Garrison, the 144th's commander, spoke of the base's place in the community. It employs about 1,000 people — almost half full time.

"Even everyone here that is a full-time employee lives out in the community," Garrison said. "Their kids go to local schools. I grew up here, my wife grew up here, and that's normal. This is a community-based organization."

Garrison was excited to share the base with the public again.

"I want them to know that something exists behind here, that work gets done," he said. "I want them to see the F-15. When they hear that over their house, I want them to associate that noise with our mission. ... When they hear that noise, I want them to think, 'Hey, that's the California Air National Guard at Fresno. They do air defense alert. They do air dominance nationwide. I know those guys. I've gone out there and met them."