Into the Blue
Decades later Luke Air Force Base continues its mission
Most would agree they get a thrill watching jets take off and perform maneuvers with Kenny Loggins’ vocals in the background, right out of a movie like Top Gun. Arizonans can experience that thrill first-hand just by driving to the West Valley.
More than 60 years ago, the city of Phoenix leased 1,440 acres to the federal government for the establishment of an Army Air Corps training field, known today as Luke Air Force Base. Nestled in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by miles of desert, the base enjoyed years of solitude as it trained fighter pilots. However, Phoenix and surrounding communities grew at an astonishing rate, and the base found its once quiet location surrounded by a bustling metropolis. In an effort to stem the tide of urban encroachment, the base established the Community Initiatives Team (CIT) in June 2003, led by Director Rusty Mitchell in conjunction with the base’s commander, Brig. Gen. Noel T. Jones.
While Jones just joined Luke AFB in June 2006, he is no stranger to the Air Force and its goals. A graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1980, Jones has served on Air Force bases across the country and around the world, including California, Florida, Colorado, New Mexico, South Carolina, Spain and South Korea. He also commanded the 332nd Expeditionary Wing in southwest Asia during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
In regard to urban encroachment, Jones says Luke AFB sets a standard for other military bases to follow. “I would propose that Luke AFB is the model for how to deal with encroachment concerns,” he says. “Over the last several years, Luke AFB has proactively provided the surrounding cities, county and state staffs with the information they need to zone for compatible land uses around the base. As you know, Maricopa County is one of the fastest growing counties in the nation, and as such, it is in Luke’s best interest to provide the information they need to ensure our capability to perform the mission is preserved.”
Mitchell, who has led CIT since its inception, agrees that the program is one of a kind. “The Air Force has identified us as a ‘best practice’ for the Air Force—something that works, something that’s good and for other bases to emulate. My staff and myself travel to other bases at their request to assist them in addressing encroachment issues and in some cases, setting up an office similar to ours.”
The wing commander at that time, Brig. Gen. Phil Breedlove, recognized the increasing pressure from developers in the West Valley and wanted to set up a full-time office that could provide a faster response to those needs.
“One of the common complaints of the cities was they wanted to help, but they just didn’t know what our requirements were,” Mitchell explains. Mitchell and his staff meet with state representatives on a regular basis to review past legislation and discuss the possibility of future protections for the base. They also monitor city council agendas and attend city council meetings when land, close to the base’s border, or noise lines is called into question. He stresses that CIT has no zoning or veto authority on any development. All his staff can do is share with the public and government authorities the bases’ compatibility issues and hope everyone’s best interests can be met.
Luke AFB hasn’t always had problems with development though. In fact, Mitchell can remember when the location was thought of as the most remote in the area.
“I went to flight school at Williams Air Force Base in the ‘70s and nobody wanted to be assigned to Luke AFB because it was so far away from anything,” he says. “It’s just incredible—30 years ago, Luke wasn’t just on the outskirts, it was out of town.”
But now, the base is surrounded by cities like El Mirage, Glendale and Litchfield Park. Mitchell and his staff have established solid relationships with the surrounding communities’ leaders and he feels they have encroachment issues under control.
“Whenever there’s development, there are issues, but we feel confident that we have stabilized incompatible growth in the West Valley as far as our mission is concerned,” he says. “The danger is there, but it’s certainly not getting worse. It’s refreshing and heartwarming, really, to see the support of all the cities.”
Glendale Mayor Elaine Scruggs gives the base her full support and says the personnel are like family. “Luke personnel are really members of our community,” she says. “They are involved in every aspect of our community—they are boy scout and girl scout leaders in schools, [they] volunteer hours to nonprofits. Too many times the personnel are thought of as being remote when in fact they are our neighbors…and they contribute a tremendous amount to make [the community] stronger and better.”
El Mirage Mayor Fred Waterman also supports Luke’s mission but admits his city struggles to find appropriate space for development, especially for schools. “One-third of our city is under their noise zone, so we’ve had to change the zoning immensely,” he says. “We can’t build certain things in different areas because of the potential impact on Luke.”
Mitchell says he’s aware of this dilemma and is working with the school board in El Mirage to find an appropriate location. “The attorney general has historically ruled that no school can be built inside our 65 decibel noise line, and that’s the problem El Mirage has,” he explains. “As you get closer to the runway, it becomes a safety issue and the state has determined that the risk is too high to allow schools inside that area.”
Financially, Luke AFB is a huge asset to Arizona. In fact, the base contributes in excess of $1.4 billion a year to the state’s economy.
“It’s like its own city,” Scruggs says. “They contract for a large amount of services and goods and those contracts are through cities throughout the state. Also, the personnel spend money here and many people come to visit, so it contributes to tourism dollars. Their impact is within all reaches of the state, but first and foremost, they are a key part of our nation’s security system.”
“We don’t focus on that as our main purpose of being here,” Mitchell says in regard to their financial impact. “We are the only active duty F-16 training base in the world, which is critical to our nation’s defense.”
In fact, pilots trained at Luke will often times be in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan within 30 days of his or her completed training. The base also trains F-16 maintenance personnel, whose expertise is crucial to pilots’ success.
“A big change at Luke over the last 10 years has been our requirement to deploy mission-ready war fighters into the war. We probably average close to 1,000 personnel a year deploying over to the war and we don’t get backfill for those. We’re a 10-man football team—everybody steps up and does the job.”
With the ongoing war, Luke is unlikely to be closed any time soon. Mitchell explains the base was only closed once, temporarily, in the late 1940s due to inactivity. After a recent reevaluation, Luke’s grades on military value and other issues are high enough to ensure it will not be closed. But, Mitchell and his team must continue to keep a close eye on development to ensure encroachment does not jeopardize the base’s mission, Jones says.
“I don’t like to deal in hypotheticals,” Jones explains when asked if development would cause a base closure. “I will say that based on the great support we receive from the surrounding communities, county and state, I do not foresee encroachment growing to the point where we would be unable to conduct our training mission. It does require constant vigilance and monitoring, and that’s why we have committed a full-time staff to ensure the community has the information required to make sure the developments surrounding the base are compatible.”
Mitchell agrees with Jones’ assessment and says it takes a group effort between CIT and the surrounding communities.
“As long as the state of Arizona and surrounding communities continue to do the outstanding job they’re doing now, recognizing the mission requirements of Luke, there’s no reason at all that Luke cannot exist,” Mitchell says. “If it wasn’t for the support of Gen. Breedlove and the subsequent wing commanders (Gen. Rand and Gen. Jones), we would meld away into the wing and I think the base would be in danger. [CIT] has been accepted throughout the Air Force as, really, the way it needs to go in the future.”
AZ Business Magazine Feb Mar ’07 | Next: Trojan Horse