SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. --
The 495th Fighter Group is dedicated to developing fighter pilots and maintainers through total force associations that provide mission-focused training and operational experience. It is arguably one of the most unique fighter groups in the United States Air Force.
Reporting directly to Air Combat Command’s 15th Air Force, the 495 FG consists of over 860 Active Duty Airmen executing flying and supporting the A-10, F-15C, F-16, and F-35A aircraft at 23 Active Associations across the continental United States. Air Force Instruction 90-1001 defines an Active Association in which an Air Reserve Component sponsor organization shares a mission with one or more Regular Air Force associate organizations.
The 495 FG was activated on October 26, 1943 during World War II and operated in the European theater commanding two squadrons, the 551st and 552d Fighter Training Squadrons. The group was disbanded in 1945.
Fast forward, the Air Force created an organization dedicated to pilot absorption in 2014. The Total Force Integration Round Table, a decision-making forum which includes the Commander of Air Combat Command, Director of the Air National Guard, and Commander of Air Force Reserve Command, re-aligned absorption requirements to fall under the 495th Fighter Group, Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina.
“To season a new Fighter Pilot, which we also call Pilot Absorption, a graduated pilot arrives at a traditional Combat Air Force fighter squadron or Active Association fighter squadron,” said Col. Mark Massaro, 495th Fighter Group commander. “While there, a new fighter pilot gains experience through multiple upgrades and execution of daily training missions, large scale exercises, and contingency deployment missions with their Total Force partners,” said Massaro.
After the DoD developed the Total Force concept in 1971, it defined the policy objective of “integrating Active, Guard, and Reserve forces into a homogeneous whole.” By 1979, the Air Force was the first service to implement a Total Force management system.
According to Massaro, the intent was to leverage the high level of experience within the Air Reserve Component (ARC) at Air National Guard and Air Force Reserves locations so that new Regular Air Force Active Duty fighter pilots could gain experience and become “absorbed.” It also created extra capacity across the Combat Air Force, increasing the number of spaces where absorption could occur.
In 2018, the Air Force reported 2,000 fewer pilots than required, with nearly 1,000 of those missing being fighter pilot positions, according to a Report to Congress. The Air Force is currently working to reduce this pilot gap through pilot production, absorption, and retention initiatives. One of those mitigations is the hard work being performed by the Total Force Integration.
“You go into a place with maintainers and instructors who have been doing this for decades,” said Capt. Salvador Vargas-Castro, a fighter pilot assigned to the 495th Fighter Group, stationed at Homestead Air Reserve Base in Florida. “You basically get thrown into a situation where everyone around you has been through it before. Most of the time, you’re flying with guys who have been flying the jet longer than you’ve been in the Air Force.”
The 495th has pilots and maintainers working together with Air Reserve Component Airmen to operate and maintain nearly 20% of the Air Force fighter aircraft inventory.
“It’s a very mutually beneficial relationship. For example, we fly jets in Florida belonging to the 93d Fighter Squadron,” said Vargas-Castro “We take advantage of the instructor pilot’s experience and fill additional duties and leadership roles within the 93d that would probably go unfilled unless they hired a full-time reservist.”
Generally, the goalpost for successfully absorbing a fighter pilot are completing 250 sorties in their assigned mission aircraft and completing a four-ship flight lead upgrade where a fighter pilot commands three wingmen in a formation.
Upon reaching this milestone, a fighter pilot is considered “experienced” and able to fill much-needed roles in the CAF, including instructor duties and mission commander roles, among other things.
The 23 Active Associations that make up the 495 FG are organized as nine Fighter Squadrons and 14 Operating Locations. These locations are organized as geographically-separated locations from the fighter squadrons. Typically, they have anywhere from one to four pilots actively associated with Air National Guard units across the country.
The Active Association Fighter Squadrons vary between 50 to 180 Airmen, and an active duty Squadron Commander leads each. Unlike traditional CAF fighter squadrons, each fighter squadron in the 495th FG has pilots, maintainers, administrative, medical, and mission support Airmen.
“Being part of an Active Association unit, I feel that it’s a good thing for both worlds, and being a part of this unit has been nothing short of amazing,” said Staff Sgt. Krystal Wamil, an avionics journeyman assigned to the 358th Fighter Squadron, Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri. “I come from Hawaii, and for me, family is big. In Hawaii, it’s called Hanai family, which is your adopted family. The reserve unit is my Hanai family.”
The 495 FG, boldly executes the mission to meet the Air Force’s demands for tomorrow’s fight. Their vision is a Total Air Force effort, unified to develop the next generation of Warrior Leaders and Champions of Total Force Integration. With more pilots absorbed, ready to deploy, and work with their Total Force partners, they will be ready to win against any adversary, anytime, anywhere.