LAKELAND — Their agency faces a billion-dollar cut under President Donald Trump's proposed spending plan but the people who keep the fleet of hurricane hunters in the air say their new center in Lakeland is opening with a planned budget hike.
"We are solid," said Capt. Michael Silah, chief of the center, at a ceremony Friday marking the opening of the 58,000-square-foot Aircraft Operation Center, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In November, NOAA agreed to lease the center for $15 million to $16 million over 10 years, Silah said. MacDill Air Force Base hosted the center for the past two decades but had to send it packing to make room for more KC-135 refueling jets.
The Trump budget calls for an increase of nearly $2 million, to $34 million, in the Aviation Operations and Aircraft Services sub-program, according to NOAA budget figures. The boost is for increased lease and fuel costs for the new center at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport.
Overall, the agency budget is taking a hit to help fund the president's national security priorities.
The proposed budget of $4.8 billion is about $1 billion less than this year's. A key NOAA research effort, the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, faces a proposed spending cut from $489 million to $350 million. An $11 million tornado study in the South also would be eliminated.
Still, Benjamin Friedman, the man temporarily running NOAA, said in an interview at the Lakeland ceremony that the agency will continue protecting the public through weather forecasting — a mission served by the nine hurricane-hunting aircraft now stationed in Lakeland.
"We are focusing on our primary core mission of public safety," said Friedman, acting undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere.
U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland, attended the ceremony but would not comment on whether he supports the NOAA cuts. Ross did say he supports the hurricane-hunting operation because it saves $3 for every dollar of public money spent.
Officials speaking at the ceremony lauded the effort that brought the aircraft operations center from MacDill to Lakeland in about 250 days and under budget.
Headed east are Kermit and Miss Piggy, both venerable Orion WP-3 propeller planes, along with a Gulfstream IV jet known as Gonzo, six other aircraft and about 110 employees. The Orions fly into storms, collecting information about track and intensity, while the Gulfstream IV flies above, collecting data.
The new center is better suited for NOAA than MacDill "because we helped design it," Silah said.
So far, the Gulfstream and two de Havilland Twin Otter propeller aircraft have made the move to Lakeland. Kermit will arrive in another two weeks and Miss Piggy later this summer after renovation work that includes new wings, engines, avionics and radar.
Lakeland Linder was selected as the lowest of two bidders, with a 10-year, $13.5 million proposal that included building out an existing hangar shell. Only one other location competed, Silah said — St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport.
In an interview Friday, Silah said the lease price increased because of additional requirements. Still, he said, the move came in 55 percent under original government estimates.
MacDill was never in the running because it did not have the money to build a new hangar and could not meet construction deadlines, Silah said.
For NOAA, the move was made necessary when the Air Force allocated eight additional KC-135 Stratotanker aerial refueling jets to MacDill's contingent of 16. That meant the base needed Hangar 5, NOAA's long-time home, to accommodate the new jets and some 400 crew members.
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.