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McConnell to get new command, possibly get new tankers

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013, at 10:58 a.m.
  • Updated Sunday, Nov. 10, 2013, at 1:32 p.m.

For McConnell Air Force Base, the coming months will bring command changes, a chunk of money and – just maybe – word that some new tankers will find a home at the base.

Taking the latter first, McConnell should know by late spring or early summer whether it has been picked as a base for the KC-46 tankers. That’s when the Air Force is expected to announce where the first batch of new tankers will be sent.

In January, the Air Force named McConnell as a finalist to receive the tankers either as a main operating base or as a training base.

McConnell is competing against three other bases – Altus, Okla; Grand Forks, N.D; and Fairchild in Spokane, Wash. – to be the main operating base for 36 tankers. Altus and McConnell are the two finalists for getting eight new tankers as a training base.

Politicians and community leaders have been lobbying the Air Force for months, hoping their base will be picked for the new tankers. Wichita is no exception.

“I know they have their criteria,” said Pat Gallagher, government relations manager for the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce and the group’s liaison with McConnell. “We’re all very, very prejudiced. We see all the strengths that McConnell brings to the table.”

The new tankers aren’t scheduled to arrive at bases until 2016.

While McConnell has had KC-135 tankers for most of the past 40 years, landing the new tankers “would strengthen the base’s long-term future here,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Wichita.

In a couple of years, the Air Force will hold another round of competition. It eventually is expected to have 10 bases with the new tankers as more are produced. Boeing’s $35 billion contract calls for the company to build 179 of the KC-46s.

But it’s advantageous for a base to get in on the first assignment of the new tankers to help protect it against planned defense budget cuts.

Meanwhile, the 22nd Air Refueling Wing – McConnell’s host unit – will see an unusual change with its top two commanders both leaving in the same year.

Commanders and vice commanders are rotated to other bases every two years, so it was expected that Col. Ricky Rupp, the 22nd’s commander, would be leaving, because he arrived at McConnell in 2011.

But Col. Kyle Kremer, the wing’s vice commander, is also leaving this year after being at McConnell since 2012. He will become the commander at the 375th Mobility Wing at Scott Air Force Base.

Rupp is expected to leave in July, although his new assignment hasn’t been determined yet, McConnell spokesman Stefan Bocchino said. Kremer’s departure date hasn’t been set.

Col. Joe D. Jackson, vice commander of the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing in southwest Asia, will replace Rupp. Kremer’s replacement hasn’t been announced.

Finally, McConnell will be receiving some significant cash. The only question is how much – $1 million or $500,000.

McConnell is a finalist for the top national honor awarded annually to military installations for all four service branches. It is one of two bases being considered for the 2012 Commander-in-Chief’s Installation Excellence Award for an Air Force base.

Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss., is the other finalist. More than 100 bases competed for the honor.

The winner, which will be announced in May, will get the $1 million prize. The runner-up will draw a half-million. The money must be used to benefit the quality of life for airmen and their families, such as expanding recreational facilities.

Reach Rick Plumlee at 316-268-6660 or rplumlee@wichitaeagle.com.

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