In 2003, when the Pentagon announced that Tyndall Air Force Base near the beaches of Panama City, Florida, would become the home of the F-22 Raptor fighter jet, local politicians and leaders rejoiced at the unique distinction it would bring to their community.
But when Hurricane Michael caused billions of dollars in damage to the military installation in 2018, priorities at the base shifted, as did the Department of Defense's focus on the F-22 itself.
Now, in the Air Force's latest budget request, the service hopes to retire the oldest F-22s at Tyndall, leaving none at the base and ending what was once a unique identity for the Panama City community.
"I was there when they landed the first tail numbers," Tom Neubauer, president of Florida's Bay Defense Alliance -- a group of area leaders focused on helping with economic growth around the city's military bases -- told Military.com. "We'll miss the F-22. We love that plane, and the community has a long history with it."
The oldest F-22s have been in America's arsenal for nearly two decades. New production of the fighter jet stopped back in the 2010s as the Air Force began to turn its attention to the F-35A Lightning II.
Tyndall's 33 F-22s are just a fraction of the nearly 300 aircraft retirements built into this year's Air Force budget request. The cost of maintaining and upgrading those fighter jets to be ready for combat would be nearly $2 billion. While the F-22s at Tyndall would all be retired, others in the fleet would be shuffled to other bases as the Air Force tries to save money.
"We have to get rid of what I'll call our 'legacy equipment' in order to have the resources to modernize," Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told reporters during a March 25 roundtable.
Despite the nostalgia he knows Floridians have for Tyndall's F-22s, Neubauer said it would be too expensive to maintain the aging fleet.
"It made a lot of sense for the Air Force to do that," he said. "It's going to ultimately save the taxpayers a lot of money."
Tyndall Air Force Base has fallen on hard times since Hurricane Michael's Category 5 winds caused an estimated $4.7 billion in damage. Seventeen F-22s had to be left behind during evacuation, but ultimately were able to be repaired and flown again.
Base housing was in unlivable condition, and many of the 11,000 airmen and families received permanent change of station orders.
"It's fair to say it will be years to make Tyndall look like what it did before the hurricane hit," Brig. Gen. John Allen, director of civil engineering for the Air Force, told reporters in 2018.
F-22s have been training and flying out of nearby Eglin Air Force Base since Michael hit.
Since the relocation, there have been some notable mechanical headaches with those F-22s.
Late last month, an F-22's nose cone was buried in the ground after an apparent landing mishap at Eglin. It was the latest in a wave of landing gear mishaps.
An almost identical incident happened with an F-22 at Eglin last year, when a pilot experienced an in-flight emergency and the front landing gear didn't operate properly, causing the nose cone to dip into the ground on the runway.
After that mishap, the F-22 Raptors at Eglin -- and 10% of the fleet at other bases -- were inspected. Air Combat Command found that one in five of those jets had incorrectly rigged landing gear. Nearly 40 of those had to be fixed, while others remained unchecked.
Air Force Safety Center data shows that five Raptors had accidents in 2021, costing taxpayers upward of $600,000 each.
Additionally, Neubauer said many of the service members at Tyndall have been commuting from the Panama City area to Eglin, causing a strain for military families.
The Air Force's remaining fleet of 153 F-22s will be spread out between Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia; Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska; and Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said in an email.
None will remain at Eglin, but the rebasing plan for the F-22s has yet to be finalized.
In the wake of Hurricane Michael, the Pentagon promised to rebuild Tyndall to make it the "Installation of the Future." Neubauer said the base is on track to receive its first F-35 in the fall of 2023 as the base works toward becoming fully operational again.
-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.