Home to new tankers brings stability for McConnell Air Force Base

McConnell Air Force Base’s future was solidified significantly Wednesday with the announcement that it would serve as home for the new refueling tankers.

The Air Force’s selection of the Wichita base to receive new KC-46A tankers in 2016 was a “major milestone,” said Gov. Sam Brownback.

The decision is significant for McConnell and the Wichita area because it puts the base in position to be a key factor in the Air Force’s plans for decades to come at a time when defense spending is being cut and base closures and realignment are on the horizon.

“You’re always worried that some day there’d be the decision that McConnell would be no more or it would have a greatly diminished role,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Wichita. “I think what this says is that the Air Force believes McConnell is a strategic jewel in their arsenal, that it’s a capacity they are going to need for decades to come.”

“The Air Force doesn’t always do what we think makes the most sense. In this case, they did. They got it exactly right.”

Tankers are a linchpin for the military because they provide the fuel to keeping airborne missions going around the world. McConnell has been using KC-135 tankers for that purpose, but those 50-year-old aircraft will be phased out gradually over the years by the new tankers.

“When they start talking about base closings or realignment again,” Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer said, “we’ll have something that puts us in a better position.”

A thriving McConnell is certainly good for the community. McConnell’s annual economic impact on the area is $619 million, plus bringing in the new tankers means more dollars will roll in for work at the base.

U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran said President Obama’s budget for 2014 – which begins Oct. 1 – has requested $192 million to be spent on constructing infrastructure to prepare the base selected as the main active-duty base for the new tankers.

Congress has to fund that budget and the amount will likely change. But whatever the amount, some of that work will be done by local contractors.

“This is about the best day for Wichita,” Sen. Pat Roberts said. “The city deserves tremendous credit for staying right in there and working so hard. This is a great, great victory.”

36 new tankers

It was also welcome news for the community, which hasn’t had a lot of good aviation news in recent years with layoffs, Hawker Beechcraft’s bankruptcy and Boeing’s announcement that it was leaving town.

“We were prepared to respond to any way the decision went,” said Pat Gallagher, government relations manager for the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce and the group’s liaison with McConnell. “We’re thrilled to respond to something positive. There’s no time when good news is not welcome.”

Gallagher was in Washington, D.C., this week as part of the chamber’s annual trip to the nation’s capital to meet with the state’s congressional delegation. She was at a breakfast meeting with the 20-member chamber group when Moran called with the news.

“Everyone cheered,” Gallagher said. “McConnell has so many plusses; the community has so many plusses. I think we can deliver.”

Wednesday’s decision brought the initial assignment of 56 of the new tankers to three bases. McConnell picked up the lion’s share of the prize in the process because it will receive 36 KC-46A tankers as the main active-duty base.

McConnell also was a finalist with Altus, Okla., for selection as the formal training base. Altus will get the assignment of up to eight new tankers in 2016 in fulfilling that role.

“The choice is exactly what we wanted,” Moran said.

Forbes not chosen

The third category is a main operating base led by an Air National Guard unit. Topeka’s Forbes Field was one of five finalists for that group, but Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire was selected to receive 12 KC-46A tankers in 2018.

For its assignment, McConnell beat out two other bases besides Altus – Grand Forks, N.D., and Fairchild in Spokane, Wash.

Boeing has a $35 billion contract to build 179 KC-46A tankers. Another round of base assignment of new tankers is expected to be held in a couple of years, and the Air Force has said it hopes to eventually have 10 bases with new tankers. The final delivery of the new tanker is expected to be in 2028.

But it was important that McConnell land the tankers during the first round competition because there are many uncertainties about future defense spending.

“It’s terribly important,” Roberts said. “We’re facing sequestration.”

Pompeo said “it would not floor me” if the new tankers didn’t arrive at McConnell as scheduled in 2016. He noted that whenever there is a new design there is a greater risk of delays. The KC-46A is a military version of Boeing’s commercial 767 airliner.

McConnell, already the world’s largest tanker base with 62 KC-135s, has long proved its worth to the Air Force.

Political and civic leaders agreed that McConnell’s central location, successful history of operation and support from the community played heavily in its selection. The base’s tanker crews have flown a record number of hours in support of operations in Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq.

Community support

Decisions on building new tankers go back more than a decade. Communities with bases began intensely positioning themselves to bring a new tanker assignment about two years ago.

Wichita, Derby and other nearby communities have been a big part of that support because many of the 3,500 active airmen, their 17,000 family members and retired airmen and their families live in the areas that abut the base.

“You can put up runways and structure on a piece of real estate,” Pompeo said. “What everyone can’t do is relate to the (airmen) as they come through. We treat them as one of us. The feedback was very important to the selection process.”

McConnell also met one of the Air Force’s criteria by having a support unit on its base that flies tankers. In addition to the active-duty 22nd Air Refueling Wing, the base’s Reserve unit is the 931st Air Refueling Group.

The decision has followed a long selection process, including on-site visits by a team from the Air Force and Department of Defense. A point system was used to narrow the field down to nine from 54 in January.

“It’s gone exactly the way you would want it to happen,” Moran said.

Secretary of Air Force Michael Donley and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh II made the selections.

“This new age aircraft will achieve better mission-capable rates with less maintenance downtime, improving our ability to respond with rapid, global capability,” Welsh said.

McConnell will be constructing new hangers to accommodate the new tankers, Pompeo said. But he added it was too early in the transition process to determine what it means in terms of jobs and staffing at McConnell.

“What we do know is we’ll get the newest tanker fleet, we’ll get the infrastructure, we’ll get all the expertise and training that will come with being the first new tanker base,” Pompeo said.

Wednesday’s announcement is the Air Force’s “preferred” selection of bases, but the decision won’t be final until an environmental impact statement is completed in the spring of 2014. Federal law requires the statement be completed anytime a new plane assignment is made to a base.

Moran said that process is mostly about crossing T’s and dotting I’s.

“They did do a site survey,” he said. “We wouldn’t be in the position we’re in if anybody thought they had a problem.”

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