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Air Force says budget calls for new tankers coming to Niagara Falls base next year

TOWN OF NIAGARA – The Air Force’s 2017 budget assigns eight KC-135 tanker aircraft to the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, starting next year, Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten E. Gillibrand announced Monday.

The new planes will be supported by 27 new full-time jobs next year and $25.5 million in investment to bring existing facilities at the base up to the standards needed to house the new planes.

It had been known for almost a month that there would be eight of the tanker planes, but their arrival date wasn’t known until Monday.

“It is a huge shot in the arm for Western New York that will make (the base) ever more valuable to our nation’s defense,” Schumer said, adding that the $25 million will “complete the seamless transition to housing the KC-135s once again at their rightful home, but it will also bring more local jobs and increased flight hours to the region.”

The Falls’ longtime standbys, the C-130H cargo planes, are being phased out at the base.

The 914th Airlift Wing of the Air Force Reserve has flown the cargo planes since it was founded in Niagara Falls in 1963. But the KC-135s are not a completely new sight at the Falls, as the 107th Air Wing of the Air National Guard, also headquartered at the base, flew those planes from 1994 to 2008, when the unit was called the Air Refueling Wing.

The Air National Guard personnel are assigned to the MQ-9 Reaper drone mission.

The 27 new jobs will add to the total of about 3,000 full- and part-time jobs supported at the base, including 1,987 reservists and 630 Guard personnel. The base is the largest employer in Niagara County.

“This is great news for the future of the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station,” said John A. Cooper Sr., chairman of the Niagara Military Affairs Council. This is something we have continued to advocate for with our federal delegation. We applaud them for their efforts.”

The two Democratic senators and Reps. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, and Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, had lobbied the Pentagon for a new mission at Niagara Falls, a base that has twice escaped from Pentagon closure lists.

The Air Force’s next-generation tanker plane, the KC-46A, is displacing the older KC-135s from several bases across the country, and the Air Force was looking for the best places to base the older planes. Niagara Falls was among the sites chosen.

Cooper said the Air Force told him that the KC-135s have about 30 years of usable life left, so the move of those planes to Niagara Falls should help keep its mission secure for many years.

The spending breakdown includes $16.3 million for the overhaul of fuel hydrants, fuel cell, maintenance back shop and simulator alterations required by the conversion from cargo planes into refuelers; $6.6 million will be paid to increase flying hours to support the new KC-135 mission; and $2.6 million will be allocated for salaries and benefits for the 27 new full-time employees on the base in 2017. The base already has a $26 million aircraft refueling system.

“This station remains a strategic base that already serves as an invaluable asset to both the Air Force and Air National Guard,” Gillibrand said. She added that the base “is an important economic engine that supports local jobs and plays a vital role in our national defense, and I am pleased to see the Air Force heeded our call to house the KC-135 fleet at this base.”

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com