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Lawmakers push for Falls air base as home of new refueling mission

Rep. Chris Collins and Rep. Brian Higgins are asking President Obama to give the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station a new refueling mission many believe would help assure its future.

Lawmakers and local officials hope the base can become the new home for a mission that uses KC-135 planes to refuel other planes in midair. The Air Force’s KC-135 fleet is being moved as it brings online new KC-46A tankers.

Collins, R-Clarence, and Higgins, D-Buffalo, held a news conference Friday afternoon to announce their push. They sent Obama a letter about the issue Thursday.

“Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station has the personnel and critical infrastructure to successfully support the KC-135 mission,” Collins said in a statement. “I am hopeful that President Obama and the Air Force agree and authorize the KC-135 tanker mission to operate out of the base.”

“The KC-135 tanker mission is a perfect fit for the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station,” Higgins said in a statement. “These aircrafts have a history in Niagara Falls and they should have a future here as well. Our base is unique in that it possesses key infrastructure and personnel necessary to operate these tankers, meaning a transition would incur minimal costs.”

This is the latest step in the effort to keep the air base off future base closure lists. The cargo missions with C-130s flown out of the base are being cut back by the Air Force, according to the Niagara Military Affairs Council, a volunteer organization working to help keep the Niagara County base open.

The base is home to the 914th Airlift Wing of the Air Force Reserve and the 107th Airlift Wing of the New York Air National Guard.

Air National Guard members at the Niagara County installation flew KC-135 tankers from 1994 to 2008. The 914th currently flies C-130H cargo aircraft while the 107th flies MQ-9 Reaper drones. As facilities to fly the drones from the base are still being built, members fly to other U.S. bases to complete the missions.

The 107th – whose last cargo flight came in September 2014 – got the drone mission in April 2014 and flew its first combat mission in September from Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota.

Supporters of the base say because the base had been home to the refueling mission in the past, it already has the infrastructure to carry that out, making it a prime candidate to house the planes and mission again.

The region’s federal representatives launched an effort in October to bring the tankers here.

Last month, Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten M. Gillibrand announced a key adviser to the secretary of the Air Force has committed to visiting the base.