Debate over A-10 Warthog’s future doomed Myrtle Beach Air Force Base

dwren@thesunnews.comApril 7, 2013 

A photo of the last A-10 Warthog jet to leave Myrtle Beach Air Force Base before the base's closure in March 1993. Pictured are (left to right): Staff Sgt. James Shibley; the late Chief Master Sgt. Ed Monroe; and Master Sgt. Don Urban.

COURTESY OF DON URBAN

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— The Myrtle Beach Air Force Base, which closed in March 1993 as part of widespread military cutbacks after the Cold War, might still be open today had it not been for a long-running debate at the Pentagon over whether the A-10 Warthog jet should have been retired in favor of other aircraft.

The Air Force in the early 1990s was desperate at the time to replace its aging F-4 and F-111 aircraft and wanted to invest in the faster and more agile F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, according to Pat McCullough, who was the lead Base Realignment and Closure Commission programmer for the Air Force and the man who oversaw the closure of the Myrtle Beach base for the military.

McCullough said the Air Force thought the A-10 – the primary jet flown out of the Myrtle Beach base – “was limited to a low-threat environment.”

“The Army, on the other hand, saw the A-10 as a very powerful close-air support asset,” McCullough said, adding that the two branches fought for months over whether the A-10 deserved the military’s shrinking financial resources.

Ultimately, the Army prevailed and the Pentagon chose to invest in the A-10s, which are still flying. However, that decision came too late to save the Myrtle Beach base.

“The primary reason why the Air Force decided to close Myrtle Beach was because they were planning on retiring all of their A-10 aircraft,” McCullough said. “Air Force leaders eventually backed off retiring the A-10s because of pressure from the U.S. Army, but they did not reverse their decision in time to save Myrtle Beach.”

McCullough said he believes the Myrtle Beach Air Force Base would still be open if the A-10 decision had come earlier. But he doesn’t necessarily think that would be a good thing.

The redevelopment that’s taken place on the former base – new parks, recreational facilities, an expanded Horry-Georgetown Technical College and The Market Common urban village – would not exist. And with continuing cutbacks in the military today, McCullough said the Myrtle Beach base eventually would wind up on the chopping block. Its closure now, as the area is trying to recover from recession and the real estate collapse, would cause greater economic hardship than during the mid-1990s, when a tourism and building boom helped offset departing military jobs.

“I agree with the sentiment expressed by some that your community is much better off now,” McCullough said. “The current Air Force leadership is facing another drawdown that almost certainly would close the base in the next few years.”

McCullough – an Air Force pilot for 20 years working mostly in air-to-ground missions – was only months into his role as Southeast region program manager for the Air Force Base Conversion Agency when the Myrtle Beach base closed. He was the top liaison between the Pentagon and local and state officials looking to redevelop the base.

Although base closure announcements started in 1989 – Myrtle Beach was on the 1991 closure list – McCullough said the Air Force and Department of Defense did a poor job implementing the closures early on.

“We did not know what we were doing until we hired the Mitre Corp. [a not-for-profit group that handles federally funded research] to help us figure it out,” McCullough said, adding that the base closure process “is actually a combination of multiple, simultaneous, complex and interrelated sub-processes.”

As an example of the difficult and time-consuming process, McCullough said the documents needed for a land swap between the military and South Carolina – the state got much of the Myrtle Beach base property in exchange for S.C.-owned land adjacent to Sumter Air Force Base – filled two footlocker-size boxes.

The land swap led to one of McCullough’s most positive memories from the Myrtle Beach base closure – providing land for construction of a research and development facility for electronics manufacturer AVX Corp.

“Those negotiations produced the first deed in the Air Force BRAC [Base Realignment and Closure] program,” he said.

Another first was the waiver McCullough helped negotiate that let the city of Myrtle Beach get the base golf course – Whispering Pines – for no cost. Previously, the Department of Defense had required the sale of golf courses located on military bases.

“At the request of [then-Mayor Bob] Grissom, I presented the request for a public benefit conveyance of the course and was thoroughly surprised when it was approved by the assistant secretary of the Air Force,” McCullough said. “I received an immediate and angry call from my counterparts in the Army chastising me for violating the policy. It seems no good deed goes unpunished.”

There also were several surprises as the Myrtle Beach base closure proceeded.

“While accomplishing the property surveys required for leases and deeds, we discovered that the base had 200 more acres than reflected on base records,” he said. “As I learned in the base conversion business, most Air Force bases have significant errors in their property records.”

McCullough’s most painful memories are associated with the bitter fight between Myrtle Beach and Horry County leaders over how redevelopment should proceed and the struggles associated with environmental cleanup at the base.

McCullough said he once was summoned to a meeting with state and federal regulators questioning the military’s environmental cleanup program.

“It was more of an inquisition than a meeting,” he said. “Some of our Air Force environmental employees often became physically ill just contemplating their pending meetings [with regulators]. It got so bad that we conducted an extended team building event with the Air Force [and regulators] at one of the beautiful South Carolina parks to get relationships back on track.”

McCullough also carries a physical reminder of his days overseeing the Myrtle Beach base closure – a broken tooth.

Another of the firsts associated with Myrtle Beach was the use of a cooperative agreement, rather than a contract, to provide caretaker support – such as police and fire protection and building and grounds maintenance – after the base closed. That agreement was meant to help mitigate job losses and provide local redevelopment authorities with experience operating and maintaining base facilities while the government is still footing the bill.

It was during tense negotiations with Horry County’s legal staff over that agreement when McCullough broke his tooth.

“No physical contact, just some gritting of teeth,” McCullough said of the meeting. “It is amazing how some people can make helping them so painful.”

The city of Myrtle Beach – not Horry County – wound up accepting the caretaker agreement.

“Just after the base closed, I used the agreement one afternoon to buy a new fire truck to be able to comply with fire protection legal requirements [at the base],” McCullough said. “It was a very interesting day that got audited numerous times over the next few years.”

McCullough said his best memories are reserved for the people he worked with here, particularly Richard Williams – the Myrtle Beach site manager for the Air Force Base Conversion Agency – and Dick Souza, the base’s environmental coordinator.

“Both Richard and Dick deserve our sincere appreciation for their professional performance in an often hostile working environment,” he said.

Following the Myrtle Beach base closure, McCullough oversaw the closure of Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, before leading a group of military leaders making recommendations for the most recent round of base closures in 2005.

A recipient of two Distinguished Flying Crosses – among other awards – earned during 633 hours of combat flying time, McCullough has master’s degrees in management and human relations and national security and strategic studies. His work as a consultant involves helping federal agencies realize ways they can cope with budget cuts without sacrificing quality of performance.

McCullough hasn’t been to Myrtle Beach since 1995, but has kept up with the progress here and said he “hopes to visit all of the communities I worked with at some point in the future.”

“I have thoroughly enjoyed my career and the people I worked with over the years,” he said.

Contact DAVID WREN at 626-0281.

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