U.S. Air Force Col. Derek B. Routt, Commander of the 177th Fighter Wing of the New Jersey National Guard, recently met at Stockton University in Atlantic City with local business and community leaders at a forum presented by the Greater Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce. Col. Routt explained the crucial role the 177th plays in our nation’s security as well as in the local economy.

Col. Routt addresses the room in Fannie Lou Hamer Hall.

A former member of the elite U.S. Air Force Demonstration team, the Thunderbirds, a favorite each summer at the Atlantic City Airshow, Col. Routt brings to an impressive resume to his leadership command at the 177th. A command pilot with more than 3,000 flying hours, including multiple F-16 and F-15 assignments in Air Combat Command, Pacific Air Forces, and Air Education and Training Command. He also served in the Air Force Space Command as a missile combat crew commander for Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles. His most recent prior assignment was Operations Group commander at the 177th.

The 177th Fighter Wing, housed in Egg Harbor Township at the Atlantic City International Airport, looks relatively quiet to anyone driving past, but the jet out front gives a strong hint of the importance of the base. Home to the “Jersey Devils,” the mission aircraft of the 177th is the F-16C. Col. Routt explained the location of the base factors into the importance of the 177th and the Jersey Devils to the nation. There are approximately 25 F-16s at the 177th, with 18 primarily assigned.

The National Guard is not alone in working out of the airport location. The FAA William Hughes Tech Center has more than 4,500 employees working to advance the United States National Airspace System. The Tech Center’s partners and diverse technical workforce use state-of-the-art laboratories to enable research, engineering, development, testing, and evaluation of advanced aviation technologies. They work to modernize and maintain the safest and most efficient aviation system globally.

Also sharing space at the airport is the U.S. Coast Guard. They use the space to train air-to-air intercept. Atlantic City is their major aviation hub, according to Col. Routt. The United States Federal Air Marshall program is also headquartered in Atlantic City. “Every Air Marshall that is on a flight to ensure the safety of the passengers onboard was trained here. Those are just some of the reasons the 177th and the airport are so vital to the region,” said Col. Routt. “Talk about a real jewel in South Jersey; this is it.”

Several members of the 177th FW ANG and Key Spouse Foundation organizer, Anthony Kapurelos, joined the Chamber and its members to hear Col. Routt speak.

The Federal Mission of the Air National Guard is global protection. Col. Routt explained his men and women train for war and to defend the homeland, adding, “We are built to serve our nation.” As the New Jersey National Guard, their state mission is to protect life and property, preserve peace and order, and civil defense. The men and women of the ANG can be called in for civil defense in the case of disturbance, and as Col. Routt explained, they could be standing guard on a street corner in Atlantic City even though their day-to-day job is to fly and fix jets. “The men and women at the 177th are part of the strategic guard but only go to war when necessary. We are backyard people and neighbors, but we do train to defend our nation.”

Col. Routt traced the roots of the National Guard back to its origins. “The Army and the Navy have nothing on us. The National Guard can trace its roots back to Massachusetts in 1639 and the local folks who mustered to defend their land. Whatever our nation needs, we will get it done.”

National Guard members sign up for six years. Col. Routt said it is important they maintain a work-life balance. “I don’t want to lose these folks after ten years; I want them to want to stick around for 18 more years. That means we can’t burn them out. We need them to take care of themselves so they can help others.” Col. Routt said 60% of the people in the Guard are part-time and 40% are full-time employees of the Guard. During the week, there are roughly 400 people working on the base, and on weekends, the census on the base triples.

Of the roughly 1,200 members of the 177th, half are maintainers working on the planes and equipment. But during any conflict, the most important people are in logistics. There are 96 different specialties that work at the 177th.

Col. Routt can be seen responding to questioning from the audience.

Since 9/11, members of the 177th have served on 365 missions. Members of the Guard do get deployed for roughly 100 days every two years. Col. Routt talked about the dedication of the members of the ANG, some of whom have served more than two decades in various positions. Many members of the Guard are part-time and have other careers. He encouraged future employers and community members to consider hiring those who made a conscious choice to protect and defend their country, learn new skills, and work as part of a team. People from every background and field are part of the 177th, not just pilots and mechanics.

Keeping watch over the East Coast, the F-16C has the capability to reach Washington, D.C., in approximately 15 minutes. They can be over Boston or Pittsburgh in approximately 20 minutes. “We get some of the older jets, but the National Guard will come and install new hardware and software to keep them up to date. We have some of the best mechanics in the world working on our F-16s and keep them comparable with the newer, faster jets.” As the primary combat-ready reserve of the Air Force, the Air National Guard provides mission-ready Airmen to safeguard the homeland, serve our communities, and execute global operations.

Col. Routt concluded by saying his team at the 177th understood they could be called to defend the nation at any time, but they are also your neighbors and co-workers working and living in Atlantic County.

In case you missed it, check out the full video recap below: