Laughlin Air Force Base and the community of Del Rio have a long standing relationship of serving the country while interweaving with the history of South Texas, ever since the opening of the military training facility and since its naming after Lt. Jack Thomas Laughlin, the first pilot from Del Rio to be killed during World War II.
The base started as a pilot training post for the U.S. Army during World War II, was closed after the war and reopened during the Cold War as Laughlin Air Force Base. At one point it housed one of the most famous super-secret spy plane programs, the U-2.
Laughlin has been key to the fabric of the community of Del Rio, creating jobs here, and by bringing military personnel who have either chosen to make a living and raise their families here, or to come back to live in Del Rio after retirement.
Airmen, civil service and contractors are a small community on their own. They are members of this community and Del Rio is one with them.
The base, as described by its leadership, is the first military training facility in the world by the number of pilots it is producing. Some of these and other current figures were shared Wednesday at the Ramada Inn Sunblossom Room, during the Del Rio Chamber of Commerce monthly membership meeting.
Col. Lee Gentile, Laughlin’s 47th Flying Training Wing commander, was the guest speaker at the meeting and presented some of the achievements the base has reached over the last year.
Gentile, who previously served as the 71st Flying Training Wing vice commander at Vance Air Force Base in Okla., assumed the position as wing commander Oct. 31, 2018.
Last year and despite dealing with some hurdles, Laughlin Air Force Base graduated 347 pilots, which is the most they have graduated in a decade, Gentile said.
Some of the setbacks they’ve been dealing with include the devastating hail storm hitting Del Rio in February 2016, which pummeled part of Laughlin’s fleet. Gentile said seven of those aircraft are still being repaired.
Another hurdle the base has had to clear is in the maintenance department. Last year, and 30 years after the Air Force moved from enlisted to civilian maintainers, the base was manned at 81 percent.
Thanks to the support of people from the community the base received more direct-hire authority, and wait times to hire new personnel went down from six months to about six to seven days, he said.
That move, coupled with retention programs, have helped the base to achieve a 96 percent in maintenance manning, the best in about a decade, he said.
Laughlin has also been looking at having more direct-hire authority for SIM instructors, and they may be getting good news on that department in the near future, Gentile said. Laughlin in that department is manned at 61 percent and with the additional manpower they could be producing between 80-100 more pilots a year.
These are no small feats for a pilot training facility with very intense activity. Laughlin, according to Gentile, has more daily operations than airports in major cities such as San Antonio, Dallas-Fort Worth or Houston.
The close ties between the community of Del Rio and Laughlin stretch to the occasional visitor, such as the members of the military who stayed at Laughlin during the humanitarian crisis created by thousands of asylum seekers crossing from the south last summer.
During the chamber meeting a preliminary program for the upcoming air show was presented. The 2020 Fiesta of Flight will be held on March 14 at Laughlin Air Force Base, featuring the Thunderbirds and other static and flying aircraft such as T-37, T-28, T-33, the Red Bull Air Force, B-25, C-47, U-3, P-39, A-10, KC-46, C-5 a Mig 17 and two F-35s.
Rubén Cantú has been a journalist since 1995. He is the managing editor of the Del Rio News-Herald.