Fairchild Air Force Base is one of several bases on a short list for receiving the nation's newest air refueling tanker.
Senate sources confirmed the West Plains base is on a list of possible locations for the first KC-46A refueling jets when they roll off the Boeing assembly lines later this decade. Air Force officials briefed members of Congress this afternoon on this and other plans for their bases.
Fairchild, along with Air Force bases in Kansas, North Dakota and Oklahoma are on a list to be "main operating base 1" which would be the first new home for replacements to the KC-135 tanker, which has been a mainstay of the Air Force refueling fleet since the 1950s. That would mean as many as 36 KC-46As would be assigned to the base, and the older tankers would be reassigned or retired.
The preferred location and "reasonable alternatives" for base 1 is scheduled to be announced this spring and the final decision is expected in spring 2014.
The listing of Fairchild brought cheers from members of the Washington delegation heavily involved in pushing for the base.
Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, along with Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, jointly announced Fairchild's inclusion on the list, noting they had sent letters in 2011 and 2012 to U.S. Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, highlighting the benefits to basing the tankers in Spokane. . .
. . . Fairchild is currently home to KC-135 aerial refueling tankers and has invested over $400 million in base infrastructure over the last several decade, they said.
“This is a big step in the right direction. Fairchild has been a historic part of our nation’s aerial refueling effort and is well positioned to achieve global-level reach to the emerging Asia-Pacific Theater,” Murray said in prepared statement Wednesday. “Today’s decision by the Air Force speaks to a proud military community in Spokane that I am confident is well suited to host the KC-46A refueling tankers. It has been an honor fighting on behalf of Fairchild and ensuring that continued investments, including the new 14,000 foot runway, are made to support the aerial refueling mission. "
Cantwell called the listing "a major step forward" in the effort to land the new planes."Fairchild offers strong infrastructure, experienced military personnel, and strategic proximity to 15 refueling routes and the Pacific that make it the right choice for America’s strategic interests in the 21st century. . .We worked hard to get the KC-46A tanker built here in Washington state, and we’ll continue to work to make sure the tankers are stationed here in the Inland Northwest.”
McMorris Rodgers called it "wonderful news" for the base and the region. “For over a decade, our community has worked together to make sure that Fairchild is the first home of the new tankers, and today’s decision is the best evidence yet that our hard work continues to pay off. We’ve been blessed by tremendous community support – in the private and public sectors; by federal, state, and local leaders; and by officials in both parties – and there is no question that today’s decision couldn’t have happened without this sense of cooperation and shared pride in Fairchild’s achievements and potential for more achievements in the years ahead."
Because of decades of support from the state's congressional delegation, the three said, Fairchild already possesses much of the needed capacity to accommodate the new KC-46A aerial refueling tanker including their 14,000 foot runway, a new, state-of-the-art fitness center, and a new wing command headquarters to better integrate active-duty Airmen and Air National Guardsmen.
Originally built as a repair depot for bombers during World War II, Fairchild has had tankers for more than 50 years. Initially they were stationed along with the B-52 bombers, but when the bombers were moved elsewhere in 1994, Fairchild became the nation's largest tanker base.
The Washington delegation began working in 2001 to replace the KC-135, which was designed in the early 1950s on the same air frame as a Boeing 707 commercial jetlilner with a military version of the Boeing 767. At one point, Boeing lost a contract competition to Airbus, but a Pentagon check of that decision showed flaws in the Air Force's decision, and Boeing won the second go-round.