As Fairchild Air Force Base moves into a position of being the largest refueling tanker base in the U.S. military, commanders are facing two years of preparation to get the base ready for its expanded mission, the wing commander said Tuesday.
The Air Force announced Monday that Fairchild will receive 12 primary KC-135 tankers along with three additional tankers in a backup inventory.
The transfer will increase active duty staffing at Fairchild by 400 personnel, making the 92nd Air Refueling Wing the largest tanker fleet in the Air Force with nearly 60 of the so-called flying gas stations.
“It’s good for the base, but I am not blind to the challenges we face,” said Col. Ryan Samuelson, commander of the 92nd Air Refueling Wing at Fairchild.
Fairchild was chosen in part because the cost of upgrading facilities for the additional tankers would be lower than moving them to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, another base that was considered for the transfers.
The tankers are coming from McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas, which is getting ready to deploy the new KC-46A Pegasus tankers from Boeing, a mission that Spokane leaders had sought unsuccessfully for Fairchild.
The newly announced transfers will join nine other tankers brought to Fairchild from McConnell in March to make room at McConnell.
That earlier move in March involved relocation of the 384th Air Refueling Squadron to Fairchild from McConnell.
Samuelson said he anticipates that another squadron will be reassigned to Fairchild as part of the transfer.
In the latest announcement, plans call for moving the aircraft and personnel starting in the summer of 2019 and completing the transfer by the end of 2020, Samuelson said.
Fairchild’s strategic location near the Pacific Ocean was a key factor along with costs in selecting Fairchild, he said.
The announcement had been delayed for several months to give incoming Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson time to review the transfer, Samuelson said.
In a prepared statement, Samuelson said that the additional Air Force personnel and the tankers would generate $20 million annually for the local economy.
“With this increase will come millions in military construction dollars to renovate existing facilities and construct new infrastructure,” the colonel said in the statement.
In Monday’s announcement, officials said construction costs at Fairchild were estimated at $48.6 million, compared to $80.7 million at MacDill.
That is on top of about $30 million in construction spending at Fairchild this year.
Samuelson said the planning for the additional aircraft will include an environmental impact statement, and he pledged to ensure that the Air Force will address any potential negative impacts.
He also re-emphasized his pledge to work with Airway Heights and other well owners on coming up with solutions to contamination of water supplies from aircraft firefighting chemicals. Last month, Airway Heights officials warned residents not to drink the city’s water as a result of contamination from Fairchild.
Fairchild has sufficient hangar space for the additional tankers, he said.
However, it will need expansion or repair of taxiways and parking areas. Also, the base will need to expand office and work areas, Samuelson said.
The base commander said he has worked to consolidate the Air Force’s fleet of tankers equipped with a newer multipoint refueling system on each wing, a system used by aircraft from the Navy and coalition countries.
In addition, Fairchild is the lead wing for modernization of the KC-135’s flight deck displays and autopilot systems.
“This program is integral to Air Mobility Command’s plan to extend the viability of the KC-135 fleet while ensuring the aircraft remains operationally relevant well into the future…for decades to come,” Samuelson said, reading from his statement.
Samuelson said one of Fairchild’s strengths is the support it gets from the Spokane region as well as the entire state of Washington.
He also said the base has earned well-deserved recognition, including winning the Omaha Trophy multiple times.
The tanker transfers will increase Fairchild’s operational capability by 750 sorties a year and flying time by 22,500 hours.
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