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Hard work by advocates of Falls air base pays off in a vital new mission for 914th

The Air Force Reserve unit at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station needed a new mission if it was going to avoid the federal budget ax. With a good bit of foresight and planning, along with the considerable influence of local lawmakers, that goal has been achieved.

The 914th Airlift Wing is going from flying cargo planes to flying KC-135 refueling tankers. The plan is to be announced soon as part of President Obama’s fiscal 2017 budget.

The Air National Guard unit at the base flew KC-135s from 1994 through 2008. The expensive infrastructure necessary at a refueling base remained in place.

As has been reported in The News, the Air Force will be downsizing its fleet of cargo planes. That jeopardized the future of the 914th in Niagara Falls. In response, local lawmakers and base advocates lobbied for bringing KC-135s back to Niagara Falls. The move should secure the future of the 914th, but it is also a smart financial move by the Pentagon.

The Niagara Military Affairs Council and the entire Western New York congressional delegation played a vital role in the decision, which is important given the possibility of a new round of base closings at some point down the road.

The council and local members of Congress knew that the Niagara Falls base is ideally suited to a mission few other bases can handle, having the fueling system needed to handle aerial tankers. The KC-135s, based on the Boeing 707 jetliner, refuel Air Force planes while in flight.

The base underwent a multimillion-dollar upgrade in 1994 to allow the Air National Guard’s 107th Air Wing at the base to take on the tanker mission. The 107th switched to C-130s in 2008, and since then local lawmakers have fought attempts to strip the base of the refueling apparatus. They understood the value of the system, along with the base’s reinforced runway and ramp, and wanted to be prepared.

The 107th has recently converted to its own mission with a better future: flying unmanned drones. Advocates for the base said it supports about 3,000 full- and part-time jobs, including 1,987 reservists and 630 guardsmen.

The list of lawmakers working on this project is long: Democratic Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten E. Gillibrand; and Reps. Chris Collins, R-Clarence; Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo; and Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, whose district included parts of the Buffalo area until a 2012 reapportionment.

She fought hard for the construction, now underway, of a $28 million training simulator facility for C-130 pilots. Even with the cargo planes leaving, the simulator can still be used to train reservists from other bases.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo summed it up well when he told The News: “The Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station plays a crucial role in both our national security and the strength of the local economy and workforce – and this decision by the Air Force to bring new refueling tankers to the base was the right call to make.”