June 7, 2008 By Rosanna Ruiz, Houston Chronicle
The last two fighter jets of the Texas Air National Guard's 147th Fighter Wing will roar over Houston skies one final time this weekend.
The F-16s will make one last flyover then disappear into the clouds during a ceremony this morning at Ellington Field.
Fighter jets from Oklahoma's 138th will fly into Ellington as the 147th jets depart to symbolize a changing of the guard. The Oklahoma aircraft actually moved to Ellington in February.
The change, the culmination of a three-year consolidation initiated by the Defense Department's Base Closure and Realignment Commission, ends the 147th's fighter jet era and kicks off the guard's new mission and name: the 147th Reconnaissance Wing.
"I think there's a certain amount of ego that goes with being a pilot of a fighter jet," said Senior Master Sgt. Marcus Falleaf, a spokesman for the unit. "I've been around pilots an awful lot and it takes a special person to be a fighter pilot and to lose that is a little disheartening."
The 147th Fighter Wing and its five squadrons formed in 1958 to support the 111th Fighter Squadron, which flew missions in World War II. Four of the Ellington-based jets escorted Air Force One carrying President Bush, who once was a pilot in the unit, as he was flown back to Washington following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The F-102 aircraft Bush flew as a reserve pilot remains on display at Ellington. One of the fighter jets flown today also will be placed on display. The other 29 jets based at Ellington already have been sent to scrap yards.
Fighter jet pilots and the mechanics who kept them aloft are adapting to the unit's new assignment involving Predator drones.
"We're upbeat and excited about the new mission," said Lt. Col. Shaunte Cooper, unit executive officer. "We're learning as quickly as we can to become operational in the Predator unmanned vehicle."
The unit's MQ-1 drones have not yet been manufactured. They will arrive at Ellington by 2012, Cooper said.
In the meantime, pilots, including the unit's Vice Commander Col. Rodney Horn, and other unit members now are on training missions at Nevada's Creech Air Force Base. Many in the unit already have trained there.
Lt. Col. Kurt Leslie, who has served the unit since 1988, saw the drones in action during his missions in Iraq in 2005 and 2007.
The new Predator drones will change the human aspect of flight at Ellington, he said.
"The crew chief straps the pilot in and there's a human connection that will be lost with the Predator," said Leslie, the unit's aircraft maintenance squadron commander.
The drones, which can be equipped with two missiles, are operated using satellites and can conduct missions in Texas and across the globe. Unlike fighter jet pilots, the drone pilots can be stationed at Ellington, ostensibly during combat missions, and return home at the end of the day, Leslie said.