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Speakers voice support for bringing Air Force tanker program to McConnell

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2013, at 10:06 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014, at 6:17 a.m.

Nearly two dozen people spoke Tuesday night with one voice on the new refueling tankers coming to McConnell Air Force Base:

Bring it on, they said during the public speaking portion of an environmental impact statement hearing conducted by the Air Force at Wichita State University’s Hughes Metropolitan Complex.

Of noise created by the KC-46A, state Rep. Jim Howell, R-Derby said, “That’s the sound of freedom.”

Diana Alexander, a Wichita resident, recalled the 1965 crash of a KC-135 tanker that killed 30 people near 21st and Piatt. But she had no objection to the Air Force bringing the new tankers to McConnell in 2016.

“There hasn’t been a repeat of what happened that day,” she said. “McConnell is the best place for the tankers because its safety record is quite good.”

Of a crowd of about 150 people, 22 people spoke, including seven elected officials or their staff members, business and civic leaders, an environmentalist and a former wing commander at McConnell.

In May, McConnell was selected by the Air Force as the preferred choice as the main active-duty base to receive 36 KC-46A tankers. The other three finalists – Altus, Okla.; Grand Forks, N.D.; and Fairchild in Spokane, Wash. – are technically still in the running as preferred alternates.

The Air Force had a few more hoops for the bases to jump through before it gives its final decision in the spring. The main remaining hoop is the environmental impact statement, which is required by law to be conducted any time a new plane assignment is made to a base.

Hearings will be held later this month at Altus, Grand Forks and Fairchild.

Comments by Tuesday’s speakers were recorded by a court reporter and will be submitted to the Air Force. Written public comments can be submitted to the Air Force through Dec. 9.

The impact statement is scheduled to be finalized by mid-March, said Dale Clark, who heads up the National Environmental Policy Act office.

McConnell previously underwent the studies when it was given such assignments as the B-1 bomber and KC-135 tankers. It has been home to tankers for decades.

The KC-46A tanker will gradually replace the KC-135 tankers, which have been in operation for more than 50 years.

Bringing the new tanker to McConnell is significant because it would insure that the base would be secure as a key part of the Air Force for decades to come.

The base has long been a financial boon for the area with an annual economic impact of $619 million. The new tankers means additional $219 million in construction at McConnell, much of which will be done by local contractors, according to officials.

After an Air Force colonel presented an overview of the KC-46A’s mission, Clark gave the crowd a briefing on a preliminary draft of the impact statement.

One of the key reasons McConnell is the preferred choice is the base will require far less new construction to accommodate the new tankers than the other three.

McConnell will need about 418,000 square feet of new construction. But that’s far less than the nearly 1 million at Grand Forks, 1.6 million at Fairchild and 3.4 million at Altus.

The noise level will go down slightly for McConnell because the KC-46A operates more quietly than the KC-135. The noise level would increase for the other three bases, in part because they would be bringing in tankers for the first time or expanding the number they have now.

There are an estimated 15,000 to 18,000 retired Air Force personnel in the Wichita area. Several of them spoke Tuesday about what the base means to the community and what the community means to McConnell.

“We’re married, in effect to McConnell,” said David Hitchcock.

Reach Rick Plumlee at 316-268-6660 or rplumlee@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @rickplumlee.

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