May 14, 2005 in City

Fairchild stands tall as base list released

By The Spokesman-Review
Brian Plonka photo

Gov. Christine Gregoire, bottom left, joins Community Colleges of Spokane Chancellor Gary Livingston and other business leaders and politicians to pose for a photo Friday at the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce while signing bills and praising the efforts keeping Fairchild Air Force Base off the closures list.
(Full-size photo)

Spokane’s business and political leaders basked in the glow Friday of a successful full-court press to keep one of the community’s largest sources of jobs and federal money open and active.

Fairchild Air Force Base is not on the list of military facilities the Pentagon announced it wants to close. The base would lose eight jets flown by the Washington Air National Guard, and about 200 jobs connected with them, but the rest of the Guard unit, and all of the active duty Air Force personnel at tanker wing, survival school and other operations will stay open if the Defense Department gets its way.

Those details were included in the list the Pentagon will submit next week to the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, which must decide by September whether to make any changes before sending the list to Congress.

“Fairchild is key to our national security and our economic security,” U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris said Friday morning after the Pentagon’s list was announced. “This is great news.”

Gov. Christine Gregoire, in Spokane in part to cheer the news about Fairchild and other Washington military facilities, likened the announcement to being a runner who is 26 miles into a marathon. There are still those remaining .2 miles to go, she said, “and it’s time for a sprint” while the special federal commission prepares its final list.

The commission could still make changes to the list, she noted.

But the combination of Fairchild’s strategic importance and high military value, coupled with intense lobbying by a local task force, state officials and members of Congress, has the Pentagon saying the West Plains base should stay open for the foreseeable future.

That assessment set off a wave of mutual congratulations among the groups that had worked to keep the West Plains base and other Washington military facilities off a closure list. The Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce had led a lobbying effort dubbed “Forward Fairchild” which had joined forces with a state-funded effort in Washington, D.C., and linked up with the state’s congressional delegation.

“I am proud that our state stood united and spoke with one voice in support of our military bases,” Sen. Patty Murray said.

The Pentagon list of proposed closures and realignments leaves Fairchild’s main unit, the 92nd Air Refueling Wing, intact. It would get the first 10 new air refueling tankers produced at some future date, although there’s no way to estimate when those planes might be available.

The Pentagon has planned at various times to buy or lease converted Boeing 767 jetliners, but that proposal has been sent back for further study.

“We’re committed to getting that tanker program back on track,” McMorris said, but added there was no time table yet for awarding the contracts and building the planes.

In documents released with the list of closures and realignments, Fairchild was ranked second, behind McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas, for strategic importance among the nation’s tanker bases. The Pentagon wants to move two Air National Guard combat communications squadrons to Fairchild to reduce the cost of leasing facilities in Spokane and Four Lakes.

The Washington Air National Guard’s 141st Air Refueling Wing, which is already located at Fairchild, would see its eight KC-135 tankers transferred to a Guard unit in Iowa, and become an “associated” unit at the West Plains base. That means the Guard’s air crews would use tankers assigned to the active duty Air Force unit.

That change would mean a loss of 26 military jobs and 172 civilian jobs – most of them people assigned to maintain the Guard tankers – but the remainder of the 141st, the state’s oldest Air Guard unit, would stay at Fairchild.

McMorris said some members of Congress, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, believe the Pentagon can’t order such a change of a Guard unit, which is technically under the control of a state’s governor. They’ll be discussing that in the weeks to come.

In the other changes proposed by the Pentagon, the Army Reserve’s Lt. Richard Walker Center in the Spokane Valley and the Joe Mann Center in Hillyard would be closed, and their units moved to a new Armed Forces Reserve Center and Organizational Maintenance Shop at Fairchild, consolidations that have been discussed for several years. The Army Reserve units at Geiger Field, across the runways from the Spokane International Airport terminal, could be relocated to the base later if the state chooses.

Around the state, the Navy facilities in the Puget Sound also remain open, with the Bremerton Naval station gaining more than 1,400 staff members from closures elsewhere. The Army’s Fort Lewis and the adjoining McChord Air Force Base would become a jointly operated facility, and lose about 330 people in the consolidation, but would otherwise continue as before.

Overall, the state would have a net increase of about 800 military and civilian personnel.

“The Pentagon’s announcement is a testament to the hard work that our men and women in the military do, and the purpose they serve,” Sen. Maria Cantwell said.

As he stood in front of a KC-135 tanker on Fairchild’s flight line Friday morning, Col. Anthony Mauer called the base closure announcements a national effort to strengthen and streamline the nation’s defense.

Mauer, who as commander of the 92nd Wing is the officer in charge of the base as well as its planes, said Fairchild has kept itself out of BRAC Commission sights by being a tanker base and keeping commercial and residential growth from encroaching on the base perimeter. This gives the base room to expand.

With the big jets performing touch-and-go maneuvers behind him, Mauer declined to discuss changes facing another tanker wing, and community, that didn’t fare well in Friday’s announcement. Grand Forks Air Force Base, which sent 20 tankers to Fairchild last month while its runway is repaired, is on the Pentagon’s list for a major realignment. Its 2,290 uniformed personnel and 355 civilian employees will be reassigned or laid off.

But tankers, Mauer said, have a secured future in the Air Force.

“As we like to say, ‘The last tanker pilot’s mom has not even been born yet,’ ” Mauer said. “These planes are built to be around for a long, long time.”

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email