NIAGARA FALLS – It was a historic day Sunday as hundreds of family members welcomed loved ones back to the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, when the final three C-130s returned to the 914th Airlift Wing to cap a legacy of more than 40 years.
The 914th’s mission will shift from hauling cargo and troops to air refueling as they begin a new mission with the KC-135.
“We’re going to lose the C-130s here at Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, and they are going to another base down South, but as we slowly lose the C-130s, we are going to gain the KC-135 aerial refueling tanker,” said Col. Brian Bowman, commander of the 914th Airlift Wing and the air base.
Bowman said the C-130s have been with their unit for 47 years. He called the KC-135s a stable mission that will continue at the base for the next 20 to 30 years.
Col. Daniel Sarachene, deputy commander of the base, said he was excited, but also melancholy. “We’ve got a lot of history here with the airlift wing,” Sarachene said. “It’s sort of like closing a chapter on a big book – several chapters, with the Air Force.”
He said they were looking forward to the next phase and plan to start receiving the new aircraft in the spring.
He compared the KC-135 to an airborne gas station, flying faster and higher than the C-130s, which are used for air drops, delivering troops and supplies.
The KC-135 refueling planes aren’t new to the base. The 107th Air National Guard unit flew the tankers from 1994 to 2008. That unit now flies MQ-9 Reaper drone missions by remote control.
Hundreds of people waited in anticipation for relatives who had been deployed in South Asia for more than four months in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, aimed at combating the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, in Iraq and Syria.
Jessica Konopczynski, of Pendleton, waited for her husband, Rich, a major who piloted the C-130, with their six children, ages 2 to 15, and her husband’s Cub Scout pack. She said that he has been a reservist for more than 20 years and that this was his fourth deployment.
“It gets harder and harder for the children,” she said. “It’s exciting that he is coming home, and he is safe.”
Marion Dwyer, of Niagara Falls, waited with their 6-month-old daughter for her husband, Kevin, a flight engineer. “I never ask where he’s going,” she said. “I don’t watch the news during that time, either. I would just get too nervous.”
Arriving Crew Chief Andrew Wilson, of Youngstown, like many others, had been using Facetime to talk with his wife, Jen, and three young daughters, ages 1, 2 and 5. He said his 1-year-old, Hannah, seemed confused. “It’s going to take some time to get used to it,” Wilson said. “She’s been looking at me all confused. I think she thinks I’m like the guy who lives in the box.”
Cargo Capt. Steve Bischel, of Buffalo, met his wife, Amanda, and their children – 3½-year-old Ava and 1½-year-old Dayton – when he arrived and said it was great to be home, comparing it to a “combination of Christmas and birthdays all in one.”
“Other than these two coming into the world nothing is better,” he said. “It’s an amazing feeling.”
Sarachene said, “We like to call them twice the citizen,” referring to the sacrifices made by the arriving service members. “As citizens of the United States, they participate in government and go out and vote, but these members also drop what they are doing in support of the national defense of all our citizens.”
Marcia Abbate, of Springsboro, Pa., who waited with her family to welcome her husband, Brian, an inspector, said, “It’s very difficult, but I knew what his job was when I married him. I am very proud of him.”