NIAGARA FALLS – Planes that have called the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station home for more than four decades departed on a mission from the base for the final time Monday morning.
Four C-130 Hercules aircraft carrying roughly 80 members of the 914th Airlift Wing left the base for a mission in the Middle East.
The 914th’s mission will be shifting from using the C-130 cargo planes for an airlift mission to using the KC-135 planes as part of an air refueling mission.
“It’s an exciting time for not only the 914th, but the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station and the local community,” said Col. Brian S. Bowman, the unit’s commander. “The C-130, it’s bittersweet leaving it after almost 45 years here at Niagara Falls. But the KC-135, that mission is something that the United States Air Force is going to need for a long time.”
The first of the KC-135s are expected to arrive on the base in about a year, officials said.
In total, about 180 members of the Air Force Reserve unit are part of this deployment, which is expected to last about four months. Some members deployed over the weekend. A fifth C-130 from the base will be headed to Greece as a spare, in case it is needed.
The mission is part of Operation Inherent Resolve, aimed at combating ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Shortly before they boarded their C-130s, reservists heading out as part of this deployment were able to reflect on the significance of the last mission with this aircraft even as they were about to head into harm’s way. Unit officials asked that members being deployed be identified only by rank and first name.
Kim, a pilot and lieutenant in the 914th, called it an honor to be able to get deployed on this mission. She is making her first deployment with the Air Force, having previously been deployed with the Army National Guard.
“The plane is capable of so many different things. She’s so much fun to fly,” she said.
For Ben, a major and pilot with the 328th Tactical Airlift Squadron that’s part of the 914th, this is his sixth deployment to the Middle East.
“I know a lot of us are excited. Some of the guys, like myself, have been doing this since 2003,” he said. “And then we’ve got a lot of young kids with us that have never done this before. So we’re going to show them this is what we trained for our whole career.”
He said he’s leaving two daughters at home who are sad to see him go.
“But I just keep telling them ‘We’ll be back before you know it,’ ” said the pilot, who is also acting director of operations on this mission.
The unit at the Falls installation has been an airlift wing since the 1960s.
Lt. Col. Mark Ables, who is retiring next month, has been working at the base since 1985. Reservists out of the Falls have flown C-130s across the globe on all types of missions, including combat and humanitarian, Ables said.
“We’ve participated in every major and minor conflict, at least since I’ve been in the Air Force, from Panama to Sarajevo, Bosnia, of course the Gulf War in 1990, and then Desert Storm in 1991 and then now the Gulf conflict again from 2003 until present. So we are involved in everything,” he said. “This plane is, I tell the kids when we do tours, that it’s like a flying pickup truck. We’ll go anywhere. We can land in any conditions virtually, day or night. We don’t even need electronic lighting. We can have little infrared lights on the ground.”
The KC-135 refueling planes won’t be new to the Falls base. The 107th Air National Guard unit flew the tankers from 1994 to 2008. The unit now flies the MQ-9 Reaper drone mission.
The departure of the C-130s is both bittersweet and exciting for the base and the community, said John Cooper, chairman of the Niagara Military Affairs Council, a volunteer group that has worked to keep the base open through rounds of closures by the Air Force.
“It’s the end of an era and the beginning of an era here at the base,” Cooper said.