A squadron of helicopters and their crews will remain at Fairchild Air Force Base for the foreseeable future, the Pentagon says.
After objections from Inland Northwest law enforcement officials and intense congressional lobbying from Washington and Idaho, the Defense Department says it has money in the Air Force budget through 2011 for the squadron and that “no plans exist to remove this capability” from Fairchild.
“That’s good news,” U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, an Eastern Washington Republican, said Thursday.
In early 2007, military leaders announced plans to remove the 36th Rescue Flight, or 36th RQF, from the Air Force Survival School at Fairchild, where it is used in training air crews. Since it came to the base in the mid-1970s, the squadron has performed hundreds of search and rescue operations involving civilians who needed to be evacuated from remote locations around the Inland Northwest.
Members of Congress stalled the removal, telling the Pentagon to keep the squadron at Fairchild while they studied how the helicopters are being used, how they would be replaced by other units and what that would cost. When Air Force officials appeared before the Senate Appropriations Committee, they could expect a question from Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., or Larry Craig, R-Idaho; when they went before the House Armed Services Committee, they could face McMorris Rodgers.
In June, McMorris Rodgers sent the Air Force chief of staff more questions about the Pentagon’s plans to handle the jobs the helicopters do, asking how far aircraft from other bases would have to fly, how long that would take and where they would refuel.
This month, Maj. Gen. Herbert Carlisle, the director of the Air Force’s legislative liaison office, wrote back with detailed answers to many of those questions, including the unit’s cost – $69.8 million over 10 years for 18 personnel and 1,080 flying hours per year.
More succinct, however, was his answer to the key question asking for a justification for moving the squadron.
“The 36th RQF is fully funded through Fiscal Year 2011 and there are no plans to close the 36th RQF at Fairchild Air Force Base,” Carlisle wrote.
As for alternatives, the Air Force doesn’t have any, he wrote, because it isn’t planning to move the squadron away from Fairchild.
A spokeswoman for Murray said the senator has received verbal assurances, both in meetings with Pentagon officials and during hearings, that the helicopters would stay at Fairchild. But the letter provides “positive confirmation.”
“Sen. Murray worked with former and current Air Force leadership to keep these helicopters here because of their importance to the base and the entire region,” spokeswoman Alex Glass said.
McMorris Rodgers said she thinks the Air Force was looking for ways to save money and decided to move the helicopters without realizing their importance.
“I’m not sure they understood to what degree those helicopters are providing services to the region,” she said, adding she hoped Carlisle’s letter signaled the end of talk about moving the unit.