The 440th Airlift Wing, an Air Force reserve unit providing critical training and support to the 82nd Airborne Division, is still the center of debate in Washington. The unit, transferred from Wisconsin to North Carolina following the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure, is home to 1100 Air Force reservists and support staff. It provides a quarter of the flight training at Fort Bragg. The estimated economic impact of the unit on the Sandhills region is $77 million.
The unit's signature jumps on Fort Bragg could become an image of the past, but Thursday afternoon, routine training continued as 80 paratroopers gracefully glided from eight C-130s onto the Pope Army Airfield tarmac during training called the Elephant Walk and Halo Airborne Operations.
"Let's hope it doesn't happen because this is tradition," said Army Spec. Tyron Nathan with the 824th Quartermaster company. "This is Fort Bragg right here, and (the) true spirit of Airborne. Hate to see it go, so let's cross fingers it doesn't happen."Local and state leaders fiercely oppose deactivation of the unit.
"I am deeply concerned about a proposal from the Air Force that would remove all of the C-130s stationed at Pope Army Airfield at Ft. Bragg," said North Carolina Senator Kay Hagan during a recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
"These actions would leave no airlift at the home of the Airborne - something that I vehemently oppose," said Hagan last week. "This is a rushed proposal that would attempt to push through a drastic decision before Congress has had the opportunity to review it through the full authorization and appropriation process."
Hagan, who has opposed the proposal since its inception, questioned Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, USAF Chief of Staff of the Air Force, during the hearing. Hagan also wrote Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel about the impending move, requesting a complete cost analysis.
"Fort Bragg is home of the Airborne and having their asset is always a good thing," noted Sgt. 1st Class Andy Yoshimura as he prepared to jump with the 95th Civil Affairs battalion (Airborne). "Without airplanes we can't jump out of airplanes. We can't do our airborne operations."
As the future of the 440th remains unclear in the Cape Fear region and Washington, business continues as usual for the airmen and soldiers in training.
"What's going to happen to the 440th, that's way above our level," said the 95th's Director of Operations, Lt. Col. Brian May. "My job is to make sure that my air crew members remain trained, proficient, ready to answer the call."
While all the soldiers and airmen shrugged off the extraordinary routine exercises as just another day on the job, May looked onto the airfield with admiration.
"The guys and gals that jump out of planes and train to do this in a war scenario, those are the true heroes," he said."