In 2003, U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts carried a rusty piece of a KC-135 refueling tanker into an Armed Services Committee meeting.
Roberts was hoping the 3-foot chunk from a tanker’s wing would provide a dramatic visual to drive home the urgency to replace a fleet that was 50 years old at the time.
“For the safety of our nation and airmen,” he said.
Eleven years later, Roberts joined Air Force brass and other elected officials in using a dozen shiny shovels for Monday’s ceremonial ground-breaking at McConnell Air Force Base for $197 million in new construction to prepare for the new KC-46A tankers.
After a lengthy selection process and considerable lobbying by congressional delegations and leaders from communities trying to land the new tanker, the Air Force tentatively selected McConnell in May 2013 to be the first active-duty base to receive the new tankers.
The official stamp of approval came this spring. The first of the 36 aircraft targeted for the Wichita air base will begin to arrive in February 2016.
McConnell’s selection is a significant step toward ensuring it remains a part of the Air Force’s plans for decades to come at a time when defense spending cuts are shutting down military installations.
“It has taken all of those 11 years to make this happen,” Roberts told the crowd that gathered in sweltering heat on a flight line near where three hangars will be built. “There were a lot of curveballs along the way.
“We stayed in the batter’s box and kept swinging.”
The work leading up to the first tanker’s arrival is a home run for the local economy. It comes at a time when $370 million in school bond construction is winding down.
Archer Western Aviation Partners – a joint-venture partnership that is based in Chicago and made up of three companies – is the general contractor for the McConnell work, said Ben Davis, project manager for the U.S. Corps of Army Engineers, which is overseeing the McConnell construction.
But there will be “numerous” local subcontractors involved in the work, he added.
Archer Western, which is in the process of setting up a temporary office in Wichita, is still settling contracts with local companies, Davis said.
The money comes out of the $219 million Congress has allotted for numerous pieces of the tanker work at McConnell, though the $197 million is the biggest chunk. That amount is for building the three hangars and an aircraft parking apron.
Archer Western’s contract for that work is for $143.7 million. The difference will pay for governmental oversight, oversight by architects and engineers and contingency costs, Davis said.
At least one local company already has a contract to do tanker-related work at McConnell separate from the $197 million. Snodgrass and Sons has a $2.5 million deal to remove sections of pavement so a fuel line can be run underground, David Snodgrass said.
He said his company also is negotiating to do some of the foundation work for the hangars.
Before the initial work for the hangar and apron construction starts in late August, Davis said, extensive permits must be obtained from the Federal Aviation Administration just to bring in tall cranes.
Tall objects at an air base can be a problem, he noted.
The project is scheduled to be completed in March 2017.
Two hangars – one with a single bay and the other with two bays – are set to be finished by the time the first tanker arrives in early 2016, Davis said. A three-bay hangar will be completed the following year, he added.
McConnell has been home to tankers for decades, but it was never a given the base would be the one to get the new aircraft.
“It took a lot letters, a lot of work,” U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo said.
While the construction will bring in local dollars in the short term, solidifying McConnell’s existence down the road is significant because the base has an annual economic impact of more than $550 million on the Wichita area.
That kind of money fueled local efforts to lobby for the tanker. Gen. Darren McDew was on the receiving end of many of those letters from local and state leaders.
McDew is commander of the air mobility command at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, where much of the selection work was done.
After listing other new Air Force aircraft that have made McConnell their initial base, McDew told Monday’s gathering, “McConnell is first again and a cornerstone of our nation’s air refueling.”
The tankers extend the nation’s reach in carrying out military operations.
“The also allow America to extend mercy no matter where disaster strikes,” he said.
Boeing has a $35 billion contract to build and deliver 179 new tankers by 2027. The KC-135 tankers will be phased out.