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McConnell gets final OK for refueling tankers, prepares to spend $219 million for construction

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, April 22, 2014, at 6:34 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, June 30, 2014, at 8:49 a.m.

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McConnell Air Force Base has gotten final approval from the Air Force to receive the new KC-46A refueling tankers, U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo’s office announced Tuesday.

The decision gives the green light for the base to start spending $219 million to prepare for the arrival of the tankers.

“Once they’ve begun to spend that money, there’s no turning back,” Pompeo said.

The Air Force made the announcement in a phone call to the congressman Tuesday evening, confirming that McConnell had passed its environmental impact study, the last hurdle in the process.

McConnell has been tapped to receive 36 new tankers beginning in early 2016, putting the base in position to be a key factor in the Air Force’s plans for decades to come. The new tankers eventually will replace the base’s 1950s-era KC-135 tankers.

The Air Force selected McConnell in May 2013 to become the first main active-duty base to receive the new tankers but did so pending the outcome of the environmental study. Such a study is required by federal law any time a new aircraft is assigned to a base.

Bids already have been taken for $219 million in construction to prepare McConnell for the arrival of the tankers. But contracts couldn’t be signed or construction started until the official decision on the study was made public.

“We learned a month ago the study was complete, and there didn’t appear to be anything that would cause a different decision,” Pompeo said, “but they still had a formal series of things to do to make a ‘record of decision,’ the document that lets the contracting folks and the folks at McConnell and the secretary of the Air Force green-light the spending of money.”

Of the $219 million earmarked for improvements at McConnell, $194 million is for building three hangars. The construction, expected to begin in 2015, comes as construction on school bond projects is winding down in Wichita.

Tuesday’s announcement caps a long decision-making process on the tanker and ends any chance the Air Force could award the first tankers to Washington state, where a congressional delegation had been lobbying for the Air Force to change its mind and place the tankers at Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane. Fairchild and McConnell were among the four finalists named by the Air Force in January 2013 to receive the tankers as the main active-duty base in the first round of assignments.

A successful environmental impact study was expected because the base has been home to the KC-135 tankers for decades.

“There’s no reason we won’t be flying the 46s just as long,” Pompeo said.

Approval lauded

Pompeo and Kansas’ U.S. senators celebrated the announcement.

“The decision to expand America’s commitment to South Central Kansas will last decades,” Pompeo said in a written statement, “and I’m confident McConnell will excel in its renewed mission.”

“The upcoming arrival of the new KC-46A tanker fleet at McConnell translates into an economic boost for the community, which will endure for years to come as each phase of preparation is completed,” Sen. Jerry Moran said in a written statement. “I am grateful the efforts to ensure this outcome were successful and that the Air Force truly understands the value of air mobility assets in Kansas.”

Sen. Pat Roberts said in a prepared statement that he was proud of the airmen at McConnell for earning the mission.

“Once again, Kansas will be taking a leading role in protecting our national security by providing next generation capability in global reach,” Roberts’ statement said. “As the Air Capital of the World, Wichita is the perfect home for this new mission.”

In Wichita, City Council member Janet Miller called the announcement “fantastic news.”

It’s good to have McConnell’s future assured in Wichita, she said. “It’s a big component of Wichita’s economy and a big component of our citizenry who live, shop and spend money here.”

Vice Mayor Jeff Blubaugh also welcomed the news. “McConnell has a long history with the tanker refueling program, and I’m just excited for the opportunity to take on the next generation of those tankers,” he said.

Tanker timetable

The first fully equipped, combat-ready KC-46As should be built by January or February, Pompeo said. McConnell should take delivery of its first tanker 12 months later. The new tanker should be ready to fly by the end of the first quarter in 2017.

Meanwhile, McConnell will continue flying the KC-135s, transitioning to the new tankers as they arrive.

The 36 new tankers will trickle into the base over several years because Boeing will build 12 to 18 each year, Pompeo’s office has said. Boeing has a $35 billion contract to build 179 new tankers by 2027.

Some of the new tankers will go to two other bases selected for separate categories. For example, Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma was picked as the formal training base for the KC-46A and will eventually get eight tankers.

Another round of base assignment of new tankers is expected to be held in a couple of years. The Air Force has said it hopes to eventually have 10 bases with new tankers.

Military and political leaders have said it was important that McConnell land the tankers during the first-round competition because of uncertainties about future defense spending.

Two public hearings were held last year in Wichita in preparation for completing the environmental impact study. McConnell received strong support from the community during those hearings.

Contributing: Rick Plumlee and Bill Wilson of The Eagle

Reach Fred Mann at 316-268-6310 or fmann@wichitaeagle.com.

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