In a ceremony tinged with symbolism – historic and current -- Air Force Col. Doug Schwartz assumed command of the 927th Air Refueling Wing at MacDill Air Force Base on Saturday.
The wing, an Air Force Reserve unit with more than 800 men and women, flies KC-135 Stratotanker aerial refueling jets, among other missions.
Schwartz, previously director of staff of the 4th Air Force at March Air Force Base in California, assumed command from Col. Dave Pavey, who will replace Schwartz in California.
The passing of the "guidon" – the ceremonial flag – from Pavey to Schwartz was symbolic not just for the history behind changes of command, but because this is a critical time for the Air Force.
The flying service is making spending cuts ahead of potential massive reductions that would be triggered if Congress and the White House fail to come to an agreement on the debt ceiling by March. Earlier this week, Air Force leaders announced they would cut back on non-mission critical flights and hold off on civilian hiring, among other cost-saving measures.
The change of command also comes days after the Air Force announced MacDill is not in the running for the first wave of new KC-46 tankers. The move likely means the loss of millions of dollars in military construction for the region.
In an interview, Schwartz, wing commander for less than an hour, said he could not address the issue of the new jets. But he did speak about fiscal pressures.
"Our country has some economic issues we need to be concerned about," he said. "The military needs to play a big role in that."
The Air Force operates under a philosophy of "Air Force Smart Operations," he said, "which drives us toward a lean and efficient way of doing business. I am a big fan of that. I call it very simply working smarter, not harder. We owe the taxpayer, the Congress, the people the best bang for their defense dollar we can give them."
Schwartz, who received his commission in 1981, has flown KC-135s since 1992.
"It’s a great airplane," he said. "Versatile, you get a real sense of satisfaction fulfilling the flying mission."
That mission is not going away, said Col. Scott DeThomas, commander of the 6th Air Mobility Wing, who attended the ceremony for the new commander of his partner wing.
There are 16 KC-135s at MacDill. The planes, said DeThomas, have "a proven track record of high performance and folks need to realize that the Air Force is committed to keeping the KC-135 healthy. It’s a requirement. There is no way to get around the fact that we need the 135s until all 400-plus tankers are replaced."
The Air Force, he said, is going to invest "more than a billion dollars" to make sure the planes, which first rolled off the assembly line before Schwartz, 56, was born, keep flying.
One of the biggest challenges in keeping such old planes flying is "maintaining the parts stream", said DeThomas.
"I know that there are old parts that have to be replaced," he said, adding the planes have proven extremely reliable in harsh desert conditions in the Middle East and Southwest Asia.
The loss of the tanker bid has nothing to do with either the future of the KC-135 program or any efforts to close military bases around the country, said DeThomas. So far, Congress has resisted calls by the Department of Defense to reinstitute a base-closing program.
The 927th, which moved to MacDill from Selfridge Air National Guard Base, Mich., in 2008, has 42 pilots and 10 boom operators.
For Schwartz, MacDill is a familiar base. He was stationed here from March 2007 to March, 2010, serving first as a detachment commander for the 4th Air Force and later as operations group commander for the 927th.
He said he and his wife, Ann, and daughter, Krista, are happy to be back.
"I do not think in all of my Air Force career I have ever seen a greater level of community support," he said. "They are patriots, through and through."
In a farewell speech, Pavey, who served as wing commander since April, 2010, thanked those who served under him and, alluding to the looming cuts, said he expects more in the future.
"The Air Force is small and getting smaller," he said.