Leaders React to Hangar Investigation
Whiteman Air Force Base lies in a part of the Midwest that is often hit by tornadoes. A killer twister just missed the base by two miles last year. At about the same time, another passed just five miles away. Other Midwest bases have sustained direct hits. Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City has had four tornadic encounters since 1948. McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita has been pummeled too.
Back at the home base for the B2, those entrusted with its care told us a direct hit could be the end of the world's most expensive aircraft.
"They'd be gone forever," Staff Master Sergeant Steve Ramage said.
Department of Defense documents obtained by KOMU News show hangars all across the country couldn't withstand even the weakest tornado. The top storm resistance rating at more than 18 bases: Winds of only 90 miles an hour. The potential for damage highlighted in our reports has gained the attention of top officials in the public and private sector.
"I don't know why the air force has stayed with the 90-mile-an-hour rating," former Assistant Secretary of Defense Philip Coyle said. "They may not want to spend the money on new or stronger hangars; I don't know what their thinking is. But when you consider the investment the Air Force has already made in the B2, you'd think they'd want to go out of their way to protect them."
William Cohen, who served as secretary of defense under President Clinton, was made aware of our story by an aide. That same aide later told KOMU that Cohen found the issues about the hangars' structural integrity, quote: "concerning."
Cohen, however, declined to comment further.
A hit on planes at Whiteman could send damage totals soaring into the tens of billions.
The Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma, is the elite wing of the National Weather Service responsible for forecasting the nation's severe weather. In his nearly 40 years of forecasting, director Joe Schaefer has seen the wrath of many violent storms.
"The government's self-insured," Schaefer said. "So if the government sustains a loss, it comes out of your tax dollar and my tax dollar."
In a statement from the Pentagon denying an in-person interview, the Chief of Air Force Public Affairs, wrote: 'the Air Force goes to great lengths to responsibly manage the American taxpayers' dollars in which we have been entrusted.'
The statement went on to read: 'Procedures are in place to relocate the Air Force aircraft in instances when potentially damaging weather is approaching.'
The statement did not at any point address why the nation's B2 bombers did not fly out, but instead sat in hangars as massive storms threatened the base last Spring. Nor did it elaborate on what evacuation plans are in place.
"In my experience, I would tell them that this is something they probably need to look at to see if the Air Force procedures for how they protect the B2 bombers are balanced," Coyle said.
KOMU caught up with two ranking members of the House and Senate at Governor Blunt's Ham Breakfast at the State Fair grounds in Sedalia.
The question: Whether money should be appropriated to help strengthen or "up-armor" hangers?
Asked about the history at Tinker Air Force Base, Senator Kit Bond said, "if you were at Tinker you'd be worried about that."
Why the B2s remained in their hangars last year, Bond told us, was among questions he'd pose to the leadership at Whiteman. But as for new money to make stronger hangars, he says the responsibility would be on individual bases to make such a request.
"[If] they don't ask for it, we're not going to go out and find money that isn't in the budget to give them something that they do not say they need," Bond said.
KOMU asked him his thoughts about the current structural ratings at Whiteman:
Bond: "I think that Whiteman ought to look at the situation."
August Skamenca: "More closely?"
Bond: "I will ask them about it. But they're going to have to make that decision."
One member of Congress who has played an instrumental role in Whiteman and the B2s' history is Congressman Ike Skelton. The base sits in his district. And he is the chairman of the powerful House Armed Services Committee.
Skamenca: "I guess what I'm asking is, is it possible that those hangars' standards should be higher, given the potential threat from winds of well over 90 miles per hour?"
Skelton: "If you were an engineer in charge, if I were an engineer in charge, we might draw the standards differently. But we're not an engineer in charge, and you have to leave it up to the professionals to build those hangars."
Former Assistant Secretary of Defense Coyle says he believes the Air Force ought to look at constructing stronger hangars given the current 90 mph ratings.
"If their strategy is to tough it out against a tornado, then those hangars probably aren't strong enough," he said.