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Air base personnel embrace challenge of new aircraft

TOWN OF NIAGARA – For pilots and mechanics alike, the arrival of the KC-135 tanker aircraft at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station means new challenges and new training.

Some reservists ended up leaving the base as a result of the 914th Airlift Wing switching from C-130 cargo planes to KC-135 tanker aircraft, but others found new assignments and embraced the opportunity, members said Thursday.

"I think initially there were concerns, but once we received the manning documents, we found out that we probably in the end gained some positions," said Maj. Tom Scozzafava, operations group commander for the 914th.

A welcoming ceremony Thursday marked the arrival of the first of eight KC-135s assigned to the 914th.

"We had some folks that wanted to stay with the C-130 mission, and they looked for other opportunities at other bases, load masters and flight engineers," Scozzafava said. "A lot of the pilots are going through the conversion, and they're going to fly this. But we had other positions that were created for a new mission, and a lot of folks retrained for those."

The net impact was that the workforce at the base, about 3,000 uniformed and enlisted personnel, remained almost the same.

Maj. Ben Canetti, a C-130 pilot for 20 years, said the tankers require only a three-person air crew, while C-130s take a six-person crew.

"A lot of my friends have left and found jobs somewhere else," he said.

"With any kind of change, people are going to get nervous," said Col. Doreen W. Shipp, head of the maintenance crew. "We all are going to go from being the absolute experts at our job to learning a new system, so I can't tell you there wasn't some nervousness in that regard."

Shipp said the 285 members of her crew will be training steadily, with some temporarily heading to other bases and others working with trainers visiting Niagara Falls.

"It is a challenge, because it will take some time for them to get up to their maintenance proficiency," Shipp said. "Two-thirds of them are part-time employees, traditional reservists. Our major challenge is getting them excused from their civilian employment to come out here to train to the proficiency they're going to need for this new aircraft."

914th Airlift Wing reservists at a welcoming ceremony in a hangar for the first of eight KC-135 Stratotankers to arrive at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station.

Canetti said he will be heading to Oklahoma at the end of February for four months of training in flying the KC-135.

"The first phase is academics, learning the capabilities of the aircraft, and there's about 2 1/2 months of simulator training. We only get about five or six flights in the actual aircraft before we head back to home station," Canetti said.

He said it would be a big help for a flight simulator for the KC-135 to be located at the Niagara Falls base. A building designed to accommodate a C-130 simulator was completed on the base last summer, but it stands idle because the C-130s are leaving the base by June, after 47 years of being stationed there.

[RELATED: C-130 Hercules aircraft ends 45-year mission at Falls air base]

"Having it right here at home station, we could just go over there and get our training done instead of having to travel someplace in the country like we do now," Canetti said.

"The next job is to fill that $6.1 million space for a simulator," Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul said at the ceremony. "I think there's going to be three allocated over the next year."

The plane is 50 percent larger and twice as fast as a C-130.

"We can refuel any aircraft at any time, anywhere in the world," Canetti said.

Scozzafava said the KC-135 also can be used to move as many as 45 troops as it flies a refueling mission – and the planes are in such demand, they're always on a refueling mission.

In fact, on Wednesday, as the base's first KC-135 was being flown from North Carolina to Niagara Falls, it was used to refuel two Air Force fighter jets it encountered on the way.

"They don't let these things out of their sight unless they're passing fuel," Scozzafava said.

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