August 22, 2014 at 1:00 am

Selfridge A-10's outlook cloudy as air show approaches

Harrison Township— As personnel at Selfridge Air National Guard Base prepare to host tens of thousands of visitors during next month’s annual air show, the future of one of the facility’s staple aircraft remains in doubt.

While Congress decided this spring against an Air Force plan to retire the A-10 fighter jet — including 18 in service at Selfridge — the “Warthog” isn’t entirely safe from the budget ax, lawmakers and military experts say.

The Thunderbolt II aircraft supports 800 jobs at the Macomb County base and are part of a fleet of 283 A-10s nationwide. Retiring the 1970s-era fighters would save an estimated $4.2 billion over five years.

Roman Schweizer, a defense policy analyst and director of Guggenheim Securities, said the A-10 is a useful aircraft but could be vulnerable because it is good at one thing: attacking targets on the ground.

Schweizer said multipurpose aircraft are in greater demand, putting the A-10 at more risk of retirement. “They have to make cuts somewhere,” he said.

He added that if the A-10 remains, the Air Force will make reductions elsewhere, which may mean retiring other aircraft.

U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township, helped stave off the fleet’s retirement this year and vowed in a statement Thursday to keep working to maintain the A-10 in service.

“It has proven to been ideally suited to its mission, and until the Air Force has an adequate replacement, I will continue to fight to keep them operational, especially those in the 127th Wing at Selfridge,” she said.

Selfridge is a major economic contributor to Macomb County and the state, employing more than 5,000 civilian and military personnel and accounting for $100 million in annual spending, Miller said.

The base is home to 44 federal agencies, including units with the armed forces and Customs and Border Protection.

Job cuts and mission changes have loomed over Selfridge before. The base almost lost 700 jobs in 2012 as part of an Obama administration proposal to shore up the federal budget. A $631 billion defense bill passed by Congress spared the base.

And in 2005, Selfridge lost 300 jobs when the federal Base Closure and Realignment Commission shut down the Army garrison at the base.

Besides the A-10s, Selfridge also flies the KC-135 Stratotanker, a jet that enables the military to refuel the A-10s and other aircraft in midair. Eight Stratotankers based at Selfridge.

Thursday, Selfridge personnel showed off both aircraft’s capabilities during a demonstration flight for media members near Grayling, home to the the largest National Guard training facility in the country.

Maj. Bethany Torma and 1st Lt. Amy Padesky flew the Stratotanker while boom operator Master Sgt. John Karns was in the rear of the aircraft, lying prone. It was a delicate dance between Karns and the pilot of the A-10 as Karns maneuvered the boom, a long, extendable metal arm that connected to the aircraft for refueling.

Selfridge officials expect 50,000 to 75,000 people per day at the base’s open house Sept. 6-7.

“The presence of the Blue Angels team from the Navy will likely push that number toward the higher end,” said Technical Sgt. Dan Heaton. “That typically happens when either the Blue Angels or USAF Thunderbirds appear at the Open House.”

Heaton said the last open house at Selfridge was in 2011.

This year a Macomb County native and Iraq war veteran will lead the team of precision pilots. Commander Tom Frosch, who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, is a 1998 graduate of Fraser High School.

“It is a great opportunity for everyone to ... meet the brave men and women who serve there,” Miller said.

Bloomberg News contributed.

This A-10 Thunderbolt II receives fuel in mid-air. / Todd McInturf / The Detroit News
Co-pilot 1st Lt. Amy Padesky goes through a Selfridge Air National Guard ... (Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)
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