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Combat firearms instructor James Hansen fires his weapon in the new Small-Arms Indoor range at Westover Air Reserve Base. Officials held a ribbon cutting ceremony for the new facility.
Combat firearms instructor James Hansen fires his weapon in the new Small-Arms Indoor range at Westover Air Reserve Base. Officials held a ribbon cutting ceremony for the new facility. (Don Treeger, The Republican/TNS)

CHICOPEE, Mass. (Tribune News Service) — More than $57 million in improvements will move hundreds of Westover Air Reserve Base employees out of the cold, rain, snow or blazing sun and allow them to do many of their jobs more efficiently and comfortably.

Military officers joined with federal and local officials Tuesday to break ground on a hangar designed for the inspections base personnel perform on the country’s fleet of C-5M Super Galaxy cargo jets. They then took a short walk to celebrate the opening of the base’s indoor firing range.

“To have the opportunity to have this brand new maintenance hangar speaks volumes of what this instillation means and provides, not only for the nation’s defense and the United States Air Force but also for this community,” said Col. Joseph Janik, commander of the 439th Airlift Wing at Westover.

The $46.4 million hangar will be designed for the Regionalized Isochronal Inspection program, which requires every piece of every C-5 jet in the Air Force fleet to be inspected every 14 months. Since 2006, Westover has been one of just two bases that conduct the inspections.

Combat firearms instructor James Hansen fires his weapon in the new Small-Arms Indoor range at Westover Air Reserve Base. Officials held a ribbon cutting ceremony for the new facility.
Combat firearms instructor James Hansen fires his weapon in the new Small-Arms Indoor range at Westover Air Reserve Base. Officials held a ribbon cutting ceremony for the new facility. (Don Treeger, The Republican/TNS)
A groundbreaking ceremony was held for a new Regional ISO Maintenance Hangar at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee. This is a rendering of the building.
A groundbreaking ceremony was held for a new Regional ISO Maintenance Hangar at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee. This is a rendering of the building. (Don Treeger, The Republican/TNS)
Chicopee Mayor John Vieau looks through a night vision scope in the new Small-Arms Indoor range at Westover Air Reserve Base.  Officials held a ribbon cutting ceremony for the new facility.
Chicopee Mayor John Vieau looks through a night vision scope in the new Small-Arms Indoor range at Westover Air Reserve Base. Officials held a ribbon cutting ceremony for the new facility. (Don Treeger, The Republican/TNS)
Congressman Richard Neal (L) talks with Colonel Joseph Janik, commander of the 439th Airlift Wing, Westover Air Reserve Base, before a groundbreaking ceremony for a new Regional ISO Maintenance Hangar on the base.
Congressman Richard Neal (L) talks with Colonel Joseph Janik, commander of the 439th Airlift Wing, Westover Air Reserve Base, before a groundbreaking ceremony for a new Regional ISO Maintenance Hangar on the base. (Don Treeger, The Republican/TNS)
Officials shovel some dirt at Westover Air Reserve Base during a groundbreaking ceremony for a new Regional ISO Maintenance Hangar on the base.
Officials shovel some dirt at Westover Air Reserve Base during a groundbreaking ceremony for a new Regional ISO Maintenance Hangar on the base. (Don Treeger, The Republican/TNS)

The problem is Westover never had a hangar large enough to fit a whole C-5. At 247 feet long, the C-5 is the world’s second-largest aircraft.

Over the years Westover created doors that could close around the rear of the plane to keep the existing hangars warmer or cooler inside. But the huge tail of the jet still stuck out, forcing mechanics to work outside in any weather.

No matter what, Westover men and women get the job done and get the planes back in the sky, Janik said, but it isn’t ideal.

“Now with the brand new hangar it is going to be actually fully enclosed for the aircraft. Go figure. It is a great opportunity for the men and women to get the mission accomplished,” he said.

The hangar was designed by Burns and McDonnell, an engineering and architecture firm in Kansas City, Mo. It is expected to take three years to build and will be located at the end of the base’s existing row of hangars. An obsolete and little-used facility called Building 2426 will be torn down to make room for the new structure.

It will measure more than 100,000 square feet and will include a sheet metal shop, offices and other features needed for inspection operations.

U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal announced in December that the project had been approved and the money had been allocated. During Tuesday’s ceremony, he detailed the step-by-step process, which started with a former base commander approaching him to explain the need for a new hangar. It then went through a complex series of authorizations and approvals by multiple legislative committees and the Department of Defense.

“This process began a long, long time ago,” Neal said. “It was more than 10 years ago.”

Two decades ago, Department of Defense officials were questioning if Westover, which is the largest employer in Chicopee, would even continue to exist. While enumerating some of the recent projects on the base, including runway improvements, a new air traffic control center and the firing range, Neal said it is clear Westover today is thriving.

An honor guard arrives at Westover Air Reserve Base during a groundbreaking ceremony for a new Regional ISO Maintenance Hangar on the base.
An honor guard arrives at Westover Air Reserve Base during a groundbreaking ceremony for a new Regional ISO Maintenance Hangar on the base. (Don Treeger, The Republican/TNS)
Colonel Joseph Janik, commander of the 439th Airlift Wing, Westover Air Reserve Base, speaks during a groundbreaking ceremony for a new Regional ISO Maintenance Hangar on the base.
Colonel Joseph Janik, commander of the 439th Airlift Wing, Westover Air Reserve Base, speaks during a groundbreaking ceremony for a new Regional ISO Maintenance Hangar on the base. (Don Treeger, The Republican/TNS)
Congressman Richard Neal speaks during a groundbreaking ceremony for a new Regional ISO Maintenance Hangar at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee.
Congressman Richard Neal speaks during a groundbreaking ceremony for a new Regional ISO Maintenance Hangar at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee. (Don Treeger, The Republican/TNS)
A laser sight pierces the darkness in the new Small-Arms Indoor Range at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee.  Officials held a ribbon cutting for the new facility.
A laser sight pierces the darkness in the new Small-Arms Indoor Range at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee. Officials held a ribbon cutting for the new facility. (Don Treeger, The Republican/TNS)
Tech Sgt. Bobby Trevino gives a demonstration of the new Small-Arms Indoor range at Westover Air Reserve Base. Officials held a ribbon cutting ceremony for the new facility.
Tech Sgt. Bobby Trevino gives a demonstration of the new Small-Arms Indoor range at Westover Air Reserve Base. Officials held a ribbon cutting ceremony for the new facility. (Don Treeger, The Republican/TNS)
This is the new Small-Arms Indoor range at Westover Air Reserve Base. Officials held a ribbon cutting ceremony for the new facility.
This is the new Small-Arms Indoor range at Westover Air Reserve Base. Officials held a ribbon cutting ceremony for the new facility. (Don Treeger, The Republican/TNS)

“I daresay it was operation Desert Storm that demonstrated the value of Westover in America’s national defense challenge at that time,” Neal said, referring to the Gulf War of 1991. Since then the base has proved invaluable as a strategic staging area ferrying equipment and personnel overseas.

Neal also talked about the more than 5,000 military and civilian jobs Westover provides and the more than $190 million it puts into the Western Massachusetts economy every year.

Janik talked about the valuable backing Westover has received from everyone from city officials, state legislators and Neal to local businesses that hire part-time reservists and support them when they are deployed overseas.

The event brought out dozens of distinguished guests including Brig. Gen. William Kountz, director of logistics, engineering and force protection for the Air Force Reserve Command; retired Lt. Gen. L. Scott Rice, of Southampton, former director of the Air National Guard; a representative from U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s office; multiple leaders of the 439th Airlift Wing; and Chicopee officials Mayor John L. Vieau, school superintendent Lynn A. Clark, Treasurer Marie Laflamme and police chief William R. Jebb.

When cutting the ribbon at the nearby firing range, Janik said he expects the high-tech facility to serve Air Force reservists as well as U.S. Marine Corps and Army units on base, local police departments in places like Chicopee, Springfield, Ludlow and Granby, and the “three-letter federal agencies” operating in Western Massachusetts.

Westover will keep its outdoor range for a variety of purposes, including training with some of the most powerful weapons. Having the indoor range will make it easier and more efficient to ensure everyone on base who needs to be qualified on different weapons can do so, said David Morin, the civil engineer for Westover.

“While this facility may not be the most attractive from the outside ... it’s what’s inside that really matters,” Morin said.

What is inside is 28 firing lanes, so more people can practice or qualify at the same time; adjustable lighting, so those who need to qualify for night shooting do not have to wait until dark; sound barriers; and a high-tech ventilation system.

“We can train the maximum and be supportive of our greater community,” Morin said.

In a tour of the range, Master Sgt. Adam Tremblay, a firearms instructor, demonstrated an M249 squad auto machine gun and M4 and M4A1 carbine rifles. Multiple other guns can also be used in the facility, he said.

The new range is also saving members of the 439th time. Before it was constructed, they had to travel more than three hours to Camp Ethan Allen in Jericho, Vt., to qualify on certain tests, he said.

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