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Schumer, Gillibrand urge return of tanker planes to Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station

TOWN OF NIAGARA – New York’s two U.S. senators told the Secretary of the Air Force Thursday that KC-135 tanker planes, which flew out of the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station until 2008, should be returned there.

Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten E. Gillibrand told Secretary Debra Lee James in a telephone conference call that the Falls base retains the infrastructure needed to support the aircraft, which are being relocated from other bases.

On Jan. 15, Reps. Chris Collins and Brian Higgins had the same message for the Pentagon in a news conference at the base.

The Air Force is deploying a new model of tanker plane, the KC-46A, and is looking for a place to station the older tankers, which will remain in use.

“The Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station plays a vital role in our national defense and supports jobs and the local economy in Western New York,” said Gillibrand, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Bringing KC-135 tankers back to NFARS would be a strategic and cost-effective decision by the Air Force that would help ensure the base continues to be an economic engine for years to come. I will continue pushing to ensure the Air Force selects NFARS and returns the KC-135 tanker fleet to Western New York.”

Schumer said, “This base has it all – the existing infrastructure, the strategic location and the first-class workforce – and that makes it the clear choice to be the next home for the KC-135 tanker fleet.”

Schumer vowed to keep fighting “tooth and nail” for the return to of KC-135s to Niagara Falls, “which will protect jobs in Niagara Falls, and enhance our national security.”

At present, the Falls base is home to C-130H transport aircraft and to the MQ-9 Reaper, a military drone. But the senators argued that the base already has an aircraft refueling system, on which the Pentagon spent $26 million, which could be used for the KC-135s. That would save the Air Force the cost of constructing a suitable fueling station at another base.

“We have all the infrastructure for that mission still here. Nothing has been removed,” said John A. Cooper, chairman of the Niagara Military Affairs Council, a community group that supports the air base.

Cooper said it’s been apparent since a 2012 Pentagon announcement of cutbacks in the C-130H fleet that the cargo planes would be playing a reduced role at Niagara Falls. He saluted the senators for working to expand the base’s defense role.

“We’ve got a great delegation in Washington that’s very attentive to the air base here,” Cooper said.

The KC-135s, which refuel other planes in the air, now are scattered at several bases across the country.

Schumer and Gillibrand said that locating them in Niagara Falls would allow them to be used to refuel other military aircraft flying out of any base in the northeastern U.S. during training missions.

Stationing the planes in Niagara Falls would increase the local base’s capabilities and might help protect it in a possible future base closure drive by the Pentagon.

Twice in the past 20 years, the Air Force sought to close the Niagara Falls base, but was prevented from doing so by a Base Realignment and Closure Commission after heavy lobbying by elected officials and community groups including the Niagara Military Affairs Council.

The senators said that the air base, which is home to an Air National Guard unit and an Air Force Reserve unit, is the largest employer in Niagara County, with some 2,600 jobs and an estimated annual economic impact of $143 million.