At first, U.S. Rep. David Jolly was prepared to fight the move of 23 Black Hawk helicopters from St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport to MacDill Air Force Base.
Then he learned to stop worrying and love the scenario.
That's because, working with the head of U.S. Army Reserve, Jolly has ensured there will be good economic news for both sides of the bay even at a time of dwindling defense dollars.
MacDill will get the helicopters, the Pinellas airport will get Army Reserve fixed-wing aircraft and the attending crew and staff, and those helicopter crews and support personnel who were living in his district likely won't need to move.
“It's a win-win,” Jolly said.
Initially, Jolly was concerned that moving the Black Hawks to Pinellas, first reported by The Tribune in August, would be fiscally detrimental to Pinellas.
But as he looked into the issue, Jolly said he learned there were several problems with housing the helicopters, brought in by his predecessor and former boss, C.W. Bill Young, at the airport.
The units had outgrown the facility. There were environmental and security issues preventing expansion. And the annual cost of leasing the facility was increasing, from a projected $590,000 in the current fiscal year to more than $652,000 in eight years.
“The question became, how do we make this a win-win?” Jolly said. “It was not enough to let these assets move to MacDill.”
Following up on an effort underway by Young before he died, Jolly worked with Lt. Gen. Jeffrey W. Talley, chief of Army Reserve, to secure a company of fixed-wing aircraft, consisting of eight planes and about 50 people.
The planes will be C-12 and UC-35 aircraft, Talley wrote in a May 15 letter to Jolly.
The C-12 Huron is a turboprop light transport and the UC-35 Citation is a jet light transport.
“The aviation training activity will conduct training for Active, Reserve and National Guard personnel throughout the year,” Talley wrote.
The move represents a big win for MacDill as well, Jolly said.
Relocating A and F Companies of the 5th Battalion, 159th Aviation Regiment, will bring the Black Hawks and upward of 200 people to MacDill, Jolly said. It would also mean about $55 million in military construction to create a new aviation support facility at MacDill to handle the helicopters.
With the Pentagon continuing to call for another round of base closings, moving the helicopters to MacDill is important, Jolly said.
“I like to see the growth of MacDill and the diversity of operations there,” Jolly said. Any time you start looking for facilities for cost savings, the more operations we have at MacDill, the more diversity of operations, the stronger position we are in.”
Rich McClain, executive director of the Tampa Bay Defense Alliance, concurred.
“Having the Black Hawks based at MacDill demonstrates the global importance of the base to our nation and our national military strategy,” he said. “MacDill's location in the Southeast corner of our country along with the inherent capabilities resident on the base itself, make it a prime choice for not only basing the Black Hawk mission, but other ever-expanding missions supporting our nation's global efforts, including expanding the number of KC-135s at MacDill.”
There are now 16 of the aerial refueling tankers at MacDill, with an additional eight, and more than 200 crew and support personnel, expected by 2018, according to the Air Force.
The new helicopter facility is currently scheduled to be finished after October 2017, with the Black Hawks set to move to MacDill upon completion, Talley wrote in his letter to Jolly.
MacDill officials did not immediately comment for this story, but last year confirmed that the Army had taken the first step by requesting an environmental assessment.
“The environmental assessment is used to evaluate the environmental impacts if the decision is made to relocate the Army Reserve helicopters to MacDill,” Senior Master Sgt. Joseph Thompson Jr., a spokesman for the 6th Air Mobility Wing, said last year. “Other items reviewed during the decision-making process include cost and a timetable for potential relocation.”
Thompson estimated the assessment would take about a year.
The stationing action for the fixed-wing unit and training activity will begin after October 2015 for completion the next year, Talley wrote. Unit activation will come a year later.
“The new activity will require no additional space, military construction or modification to support the incoming structure,” he wrote. “This course of action represents an opportunity to consolidate both support and training at a single location and maximum reutilization of our aviation support facility.”