EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew watched from the runway Wednesday as two F-16 fighter jet pilots scrambled to quickly take off in a drill, equipped with live ammunition like they would be in a real emergency.

Then he piloted a jet himself — in a flight simulator — at the 177th Fighter Wing of New Jersey Air National Guard at Atlantic City International Airport.

“You are going 80 mph, 100 mph, when you get to 150 I want you to just pull back on the stick,” said Col. Derek Routt, 177th operations group commander, as he coached Van Drew, D-2nd, on the simulator.

“Whoa,” Van Drew said as the jet took off. “Am I upside down?”

“You’re good,” Routt said, helping him to the right angle. He had Van Drew fly over Atlantic City at about 700 mph, and even do a few 360-degree aileron rolls.

It was part of a four-hour tour the freshman congressman took Wednesday, covering almost all of the operations of the nine-squadron, 13-unit fighter wing.

His biggest takeaway was how desperately the 177th needs new jets, and Van Drew said he will do his best to help on that front.

The Fighter Wing is flying 1986 model F-16s, said Col. Brian Cooper, who heads the aircraft maintenance squadron. Newer F-35 jets have been deployed elsewhere, but not here.

“We have kids maintaining planes 20 years older than them,” Cooper said.

He said the planes require many modifications to keep them flying.

“About 52% are mission capable” at any given time, Cooper said. The other 48% are in for scheduled or unscheduled maintenance.

The Air Force standard is that 80% of planes should be mission capable, Cooper said.

But the squadron also has highly trained, longtime maintenance professionals who keep the jets going, he said.

In 2016, the 177th was passed over to get the F-35s, even though its location means it protects major cities like New York and Washington, D.C.

At all times there are two pilots and four support staff in a secure building ready to respond to any emergency, Maj. Tom Still said.

They rotate on 48-hour shifts, he said.

“One hundred percent of the time since 9/11 we have only been called out to intercept and push away,” Routt said of planes that have strayed into restricted airspace. “But if it is a threat, we will engage,” meaning shoot a threat down.

The base is like a small town, with its own police, fire department and bomb squad, medical services and operational support that keeps flight suits, high-tech helmets and parachutes in good working order.

It also has an Air Support Operations Squadron that uses technology to provide real-time information to bombers in the field.

Its simulator, “The Dome,” gives a pilot’s-eye view of an area where targets are.

“Operators can see the whole scenario from this position,” said contractor Brett Davis, of QuantaDyn Technical Services Corp. in Virginia. He said operators in a remote area use radio, GPS and laser capabilities to point out targets to pilots in the air.

“We’ve enjoyed a close relationship with elected officials over the years,” said Fighter Wing Commander Col. Brad Everman, as he gave Van Drew a silverplated 20mm shell casing as a keepsake.

Van Drew said the tour was just what he wanted.

“We wanted to dig deep and learn,” he said.

Contact: 609-272-7219 Twitter @MichelleBPost

Staff Writer

In my first job after college got paid to read the New York Times and summarize articles for an early online data base. First reporting job was with The Daily Record in Parsippany. I have also worked in nonprofits, and have been with The Press since 1990.

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