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Schumer, Gillibrand push for upgrades to secure future of Falls air base

TOWN OF NIAGARA – The Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station’s new air refueling mission means a lot for the viability of the base in the coming years, but the base needs a little more to further solidify its future, the state’s two U.S. senators said Monday.

The base has to modify a building on the base to accommodate a flight simulator for pilots of the KC-135 refueling tankers slated to arrive next year. The installation also needs a new fitness facility, said Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten M. Gillibrand during a visit to the base.

Housing a flight simulator for the refueling mission aircraft would make the Falls facility the training center for pilots from across the country, the two Democratic senators said.

There’s already federal funding allocated for a simulator for C-130s, the aircraft that are being shifted to other facilities and left on their final mission from Niagara Falls last week. That money can be switched in Congress for the new purpose, Schumer said. Plans are already in the works for a new fitness facility to be built in 2021. Such a facility is a key factor for retention of servicemen and women, officials said.

“With the 135s, not only to do we have a good present but we have a great future, and needless to say we’re going to be fighting to increase the fleet from eight to more,” Schumer said.

The base’s 914th Airlift Wing of the Air Force Reserve will be transitioning to a refueling mission, with the first KC-135 planes arriving in about a year.

The other unit on the base, the 107th Air National Guard unit, used to fly a refueling mission with the KC-135 aircraft from 1994 to 2008. It now flies the MQ-9 Reaper drone mission.

As part of the 914th’s transition, the Air Force has budgeted $25.5 million for work on the base, including a $16.3 million overhaul of fuel hydrants, as well as alterations of fuel cells, in maintenance shops and for the simulator. An additional $6.6 million will be used to increase flying hours to support the new mission, while $2.6 million will be used to hire 27 new, full-time employees next year, the senators’ offices said.

In addition to more planes on the base, having other missions also would help its viability.

One possibility is cyber-related missions. Gillibrand said she believes New York State’s military bases are positioned to be leaders in cyberwarfare and cyberdefense missions.

The base is Niagara County’s largest employer and has an annual economic impact of $143 million, officials said.

The senators toured the base Monday with Lt. Gen. James Jackson, chief of the Air Force Reserve.