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More than 300 people show up to tell Air Force to bring tanker program to McConnell

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, April 11, 2013, at 9:32 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013, at 5:35 a.m.

Correction: Jean Reynolds' name was incorrect in a previous version of this story.

More than 300 people turned out Thursday night with one message for the Air Force:

Heck, yes, put the new KC-46 refueling tanker at McConnell Air Force Base.

If anyone attending the public meeting at Wichita State University’s Hughes Metropolitan Complex had a different opinion, they weren’t speaking up.

“I think we have as good a chance as anyone else,” said Richard Standrich, a former Derby mayor. “Look at all the support McConnell has here. That’s what the Air Force is looking for.”

Public input is being sought as part of the Air Force’s preparation of the required environmental impact statement on the communities surrounding the bases. McConnell is one of the finalists under consideration for the tankers in two of the three categories.

Although the Air Force will announce its preferred choices next month, it will be another year before the environmental studies are completed and the choices become official.

“The process often takes more than a year,” said Jean Reynolds, who is the Air Force’s civilian project manager for preparing the environmental impact statements. “Because this is so important, we’re trying to get it done within 12 months.”

The open-house format at WSU allowed visitors to ask questions of eight members of Reynolds’ team and eight officials from McConnell, including two tanker pilots. Officials from Wichita, Derby, other surrounding communities and Sedgwick County helped fill the room.

“I’m hearing strong support for the base and the Air Force,” Reynolds said. “That’s important.”

Her primary duty is to help put together the impact statement, but the Air Force also wants to know how much community support its bases have, she said.

In a process separate from the impact statement, a summary of comments received Thursday will be passed on to the Air Force. A table was even set up so people could record their comments.

McConnell’s reach goes beyond its $619 million economic impact on the Wichita area. Allen Bell, the city of Wichita’s director of urban development, noted that family members of airmen help provide a skilled work force.

“It’s a good source for manpower,” Bell said. “We use that when we’re marketing Wichita to businesses.”

In January, the Air Force selected McConnell as a finalist to receive the tankers in 2016 from a list of 54 bases. It 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 finalists for getting eight new tankers as a training base.

No base will receive both missions.

In a third category for tanker assignment, Topeka’s Forbes Field is one of five finalists for bases led by an Air National Guard unit. That base will receive 12 KC-46s in 2018.

An environmental impact statement is required any time a new plane assignment is made to a base, officials said. McConnell previously underwent such studies when it was given such assignments as the B-1 bomber and the KC-135 tankers.

James Clendenin, a Wichita City Council member, said he doesn’t know why McConnell wouldn’t pass another environmental test.

“McConnell has an extremely good track record of getting things done,” he said.

The KC-46 has a larger footprint than the KC-135. Its wing span of 165 feet is nearly 30 feet wider than the existing tanker, and it has a much larger cargo space.

The new tanker also is well suited for medical evacuation because its compartment is temperature controlled, said Maj. Paul Strom, a tanker pilot from Scott Air Force Base near St. Louis.

The environmental impact statement will consider such things as available air space, the effect of noise on the area, surface water and groundwater, floodplains, socioeconomics, land use and available infrastructure.

“McConnell has a good chance of passing any environmental test,” Jorge Martinez said at the open house. “Things seem to be in good shape out there.”

McConnell has had tankers for decades and currently has 63 KC-135 tankers. The tankers have been used for more than 50 years to do in-flight refueling, extending the global reach of U.S. aircraft.

Boeing has a $36 billion contract to build 179 of the KC-46s.

The Air Force will hold another round of competition in a couple of years and eventually is expected to have 10 bases with the new tankers.

Reynolds and her team held an open house at Altus on Tuesday and next week will make stops at Fairchild and Grand Forks.

Environmental agencies at all levels of government also will weigh in on information for the impact statements.

The Air Force will continue to take public comments on the selection of the bases until May 17. Comments can be made online at www.kc-46a-beddown.com or by writing Reynolds at U.S. Air Force, AFCEC/CZN Midwest Office, 507 Symington Drive, Scott Air Force Base, IL 62225-5022.

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

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