Last week a Voice story detailed how two of the six helicopters flown by the Air National Guard's 129th Rescue Wing have not been repaired or replaced due to lack of funding, in large part a result of the sequester-imposed across-the-board budget cuts.
It is the sad consequence of these spending cuts that made no allowances for how the budget reductions would affect critical services. To allow one third of the aircraft used by a unit that recently returned from Afghanistan to be disabled by a simple lack of funding cannot be in the best interests of the country. The other aircraft, which is grounded for repairs, often is used to drop water on California forest fires but has flown missions all over the country.
"Keeping these aircraft operational is critical to our ability to respond to life-threatening disasters in the Bay Area and across the state and nation," said Col. Steven J. Butow, commander of the Rescue Wing.
One of the aircraft needs repairs that cannot be carried out due to the sequester-required work furloughs of the civilian mechanics, and will not be back on the flight line for 60 days, making it unavailable during the busy wildfire season.
A second rescue helicopter was not replaced after being shot down in Afghanistan four years ago, despite the replacement funding authorized by Congress.
"Congress funded operational lost replacement aircraft and the 129th is due to receive one but the combination of sequestration and the other program cuts may delay this action indefinitely," said Wing spokesman Roderick Bersimina in a press release.
The stalemate in Congress makes it unlikely that anything can be done to provide the funding so desperately needed to get these helicopters back in the air to perform the very real public and military service the nation needs. The Department of Defense ordered $1.8 billion of funding cuts July 8, imposed after the sequestration passed in March. During national emergencies helicopters like these are called into service around the country to perform complex life-saving rescue and firefighting operations that are beyond the capability of others, said Col. Butow.
The 129th has rescued 600 people in the U.S. since 1977 and members are proud that the unit responded to Hurricane Katrina within 24 hours. That is the kind of rapid response the country needs in its Rescue Wing, not the sequestration budget cuts that are currently grounding a third of Col. Butow's choppers.
Although we don't hold out much hope that the Rescue Wing will receive funding to get its helicopters back in the air as soon as possible, clearly something needs to be done now. There is no reason why the 129th should have its rescue capacity diminished given the nature of its humanitarian mission.