The federal government bought the Wichita Municipal Airport from the city for $9.4 million in 1952. A year later, the site became the Wichita Air Force Base.
Now 60 years later, that base — renamed McConnell Air Force Base in 1954 after the Wichita brothers who flew in World War II — has an annual economic impact of more than $555 million on the Wichita area.
To be sure, Wichita has benefited immensely from McConnell’s presence over the years.
But now the Iraq War has ended, and defense cuts are looming for all areas of the military. The major question is, how will that affect McConnell’s role as the nation’s largest tanker base?
“I don’t think we’ll know whether we’re going to have a big change until the latter part of spring,” said Col. Ricky Rupp, commander of the base and the 22nd Air Refueling Wing. “Even with the withdrawals out of Iraq and the (conclusion) of Libya operations, it takes a while for things to settle down.”
There are more than 3,000 active duty airmen at McConnell. Defense cuts have reduced the civilian employee count some, but the base still has nearly 500.
Besides the 22nd, McConnell is also home for the Kansas Air National Guard’s 184th Intelligence Wing and the Air Force Reserve’s 931st Refueling Group. All three units have played prime roles in this country’s military efforts since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The 184th is one of only three Air National Guard units across the country that analyzes intelligence gathered by unmanned aircraft. Members of the unit sit behind their computers around the clock seven days a week. Members of the 931st averaged 91 days of deployment in 2011, primarily in support of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
There has been some relief for the Air Force’s tanker units since October, when the Air National Guard’s 18 air refueling units, including Kansas’ 190th Air Refueling Wing, based at Topeka’s Forbes Field, began taking turns serving on active duty.
“We have more airplanes and people at home now than we’ve had in eight or night years,” Rupp said.
But the Air National Guard’s activation is set to end in May. So about that time, Rupp expects demand on McConnell’s tankers to revert to pre-October levels, when at least 20 percent of the 22nd was deployed at any given time.
With the war in Afghanistan continuing and other hot-spot demands, there’s plenty to keep McConnell’s 63 tankers busy refueling aircraft around the world. Even without duties in Iraq and Libya.
“Here’s the real deal. What you’re really asking is what’s the peace dividend going to be?” Rupp said. “When the (Berlin) wall came down (in 1989), we thought we knew what the peace dividend was going to be. We were wrong.”
Questions — such as, what will the ground strategy be in Afghanistan moving forward? — must be answered before McConnell will know more precisely what it will be doing, because the base has to support those strategies.
“Right now, I’m anticipating being as busy as we were (before the guard activation),” Rupp said.
For Wichita, McConnell in 2012 means more than military strategies.
Wichitans should mark their calendars for Sept. 28-29, when McConnell will hold its open house and air show for only the second time since 2007. The Air Force’s Thunderbirds, a precision flight team, and the Army’s Golden Knights parachute team are scheduled to perform. If the weather cooperates, a crowd of 150,000 is expected.