WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — The Air Force Reserve unit at the Niagara Falls Air Base is about to get its first new mission since its founding in 1963, and the local lawmakers and base advocates who pushed for it think the move will keep the base operating for many years to come.
The 914th Airlift Wing, which has always flown cargo planes, will switch to flying KC-135 refueling tankers in a plan to be announced next week in President Obama’s fiscal 2017 budget, Sen. Charles E. Schumer and other local lawmakers announced Thursday.
It’s a back-to-the-future move, in a way, given that the Air National Guard unit at the base flew KC-135s from 1994 through 2008, leaving the infrastructure in place for a move back to tankers if that’s what the Air Force were to need.
And with the Air Force about to cut its fleet of cargo planes, local lawmakers and base advocates lobbied for bringing KC-135s back to Niagara Falls to guarantee the 914th a brighter future.
“Not only will these tankers help keep people at work; they will enhance the NFARS mission for the next two decades,” said Schumer, D-N.Y., who said the base’s location on the Canadian border and relatively close to Europe played a key role in the Air Force decision.
Eight KC-135s will be located at the Niagara base, although the exact timing of their arrival remains unknown. They will replace the 12 aging C-130s that have been flown by the 914th and the 107th Air Wing, the National Guard unit at the base, which in recent years converted to remotely flying unmanned Reaper drones.
The move follows an intense lobbying effort by the Niagara Military Affairs Council and the entire Western New York congressional delegation.
“This is just huge for the base,” said John A. Cooper Sr., chairman of the military advocacy group, which has successfully fought two federal attempts to close the base in the last quarter century. “The mission that is going to be coming back here is in an enduring mission, one that we know that’s needed in the Air Force.”
Cooper said his group learned from Pentagon officials four years ago that the Air Force had long-range plans to cut its fleet of C-130s.
“We saw that as a threat to us,” Cooper said. “So we started thinking strategically, and asking: What do we have to offer the Air Force?”
What the Niagara base had, and what was lacking from other reserve bases that fly cargo planes, is the infrastructure in place to handle refueling tankers that perform the delicate task of refueling Air Force planes while in flight.
The base underwent a multi-million dollar upgrade before the Air National Guard unit there switched to a tanker mission in 1994. And ever since, local lawmakers have fought to keep that infrastructure in place, knowing that one day it might come in handy, said Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence.
“Over the years, our team fought to make sure that infrastructure wasn’t cannibalized,” Collins said.
And once it became clear that the Air Reserve unit’s cargo mission might be under threat, local lawmakers quickly focused on the possibility of returning refueling tankers to Niagara Falls.
“NFARS is the perfect location for the KC-135s,” said Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who joined Schumer in meeting with and calling top Air Force officials to press for the new mission for the Niagara Reserve unit.
It was important, Collins said, for the base to land another, more enduring flying mission, rather than allowing the Air Force to consider moving the 914th to a drone mission like the one flown by the local Air National Guard unit.
“Absent the air base, you might not even have an airport in Niagara Falls,” Collins said. “To have the Air Force flying airplanes out of there, that keeps the control tower operating, the runway operating.”
It also keeps plenty of people employed. Advocates for the base said it supports about 3,000 full- and part-time jobs, including 1,987 reservists and 630 guardsmen.
“This is a great victory for the dedicated team at the Niagara Falls base and the Western New York economy,” said Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat who was also involved in the effort to bring the tanker mission to the base.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo agreed, saying: “The Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station plays a crucial role in both our national security and the strength of the local economy and workforce – and this decision by the Air Force to bring new refueling tankers to the base was the right call to make.”
The move does, however, mean a big break with the history of the 914th Airlift Wing, which has always flown cargo planes and converted to the C-130 in 1971.
For years, local lawmakers thought the cargo mission would be one that the Air Force would never want to cut. In fact, one of the last big efforts to improve the base resulted in the construction in a $28 million training simulator facility for C-130 pilots, which is still being built.
Cooper, of the Military Affairs Council, said there’s no reason that simulator can’t operate at Niagara even though the C-130 aircraft are now set to depart.
Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, a Democrat from Fairport whose district included parts of the Buffalo area until a 2012 reapportionment, pushed hard for that simulator project.
She, too, lauded the move to bring tankers back to Niagara.
“My pride in that base remains unabated though I don’t have the pleasure to represent them anymore,” Slaughter said.
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