NIAGARA FALLS – The $5.2 million building that could save the life of the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station looks like an big, empty warehouse with some classrooms attached.
Nevertheless, local officials who attended a ribbon-cutting at the facility on Tuesday hailed it as just what the base needs: a simulator training building that will bring pilots from across the country to Niagara Falls to brush up on their flying skills.
Now all the facility needs is a simulator.
“This building doesn’t do us much good unless we secure this new mission,” said Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo.
Local lawmakers are confident that the new mission for the Air Force Reserve’s 914th Airlift Wing – flying KC-135 refueling tankers, and training pilots to fly them – will be included in the federal budget that Congress is considering.
That new mission is in the works but not formally approved, so dignitaries at the ceremony marked an odd situation, akin to celebrating the opening of a garage without a car to put in it.
“This day has been a long time coming,” said Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, who fought to fund the simulator facility when she was serving in Congress. “To me, this represents a sustained commitment to the future of the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station.”
Local lawmakers won funding for the simulator facility in 2013, when the Air Force was keen on opening a facility in the Northeast to train pilots to fly the C-130 transport aircraft, long flown by the Air Force Reserve’s 914th Airlift Wing in Niagara Falls.
Construction of the new building began two years ago, but meantime, the Air Force decided it had too many C-130 cargo aircraft.
Hearing that, local officials and members of Congress started lobbying the Air Force to switch the 914th’s mission to one with a better future: flying the kind of refueling tankers that the Air National Guard unit at the base, the 107th, used to fly. The 107th now flies unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones.
President Obama’s fiscal 2017 budget includes $25 million to transition the 914th to the new refueling mission, in which eight KC-135s would replace the C-130 cargo planes at the base. Those cargo planes would be shipped to another Air Force facility in Alabama.
Once Congress approves the Defense Department budget that includes the change in mission at the Niagara base, officials at the local base will be waiting for the Air Force to move one of its 19 simulators for the KC-135 refueling tanker to the new Niagara Falls facility.
The chairman of the Niagara Military Affairs Council, John A. Cooper Sr., said he expects the simulator facility to be filled relatively soon.
“This is just huge for the base,” Cooper said. “We believe we will be chosen as a place for a KC-135 simulator. The Air Force has a lot of movement of hardware now. It’s just taken time to find (a simulator) that will come here.”
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and other members of the local congressional delegation said they are fighting to make sure that the Air Force locates a simulator in Niagara Falls.
“There is still work to be done,” Schumer said in a statement. “I will be pushing the Air Force hard to make sure that this new building will be the future home to a new, vital state-of-art simulator, which will make sure our pilots and aviators are safe and even more prepared for every mission they are given.”
The 11,250-square-foot facility will be able to host 450 students a year for training while creating 18 full-time jobs, said Col. Brian Bowman, 914th Airlift Wing commander.
Originally designed for the C-130 cargo plane simulator, the warehouse-like space will have to be expanded to accommodate the larger KC-135 simulator, Bowman said. Funding for that expansion is expected to be included in the $25 million in transition costs pending in the 2017 federal budget.
Once it arrives, the new simulator will resemble a giant box atop a set of hydraulic shock absorbers. And it will be able to simulate every part of a KC-135’s mission – even its precarious mid-air refueling of other aircraft.
The Air Force has a continuing need for KC-135 refueling missions, so the eight refueling tankers that are likely to arrive in Niagara Falls next year could be just the beginning. Bowman said the 914th and its base could handle as many as 16 refueling tankers.
But it’s the simulator that will make the Niagara base – which has been repeatedly threatened with closure in recent decades – essential to the Air Force, Bowman said.
“This will put a stake in the ground for us here for the next 20 to 30 years,” he said.