By Brian Livingston / firstname.lastname@example.org
The Meridian Star
As soon as July, KC-135 Stratotankers will be calling the 186th Air Refueling Wing of the Mississippi Air National Guard and Key Field their home again.
This news comes on the heels of the United States Air Force restructuring in the face of recent budget cuts ordered by President Barack Obama to all military branches. In the case of the 186th ARW, Key Field and the surrounding area that depends heavily on the huge payroll that is generated by the wing, this news couldn't be more welcome.
"There is a real buzz on the base right now and that will spill over into the general public once they start seeing the tankers arriving in July," said 186th ARW Commander, Col. Franklin Chalk. "Things are real positive and upbeat around here. I'm excited for the wing and the airmen stationed here."
Chalk said two tankers should be on the tarmac by July with six more coming in from other locations around the nation. He said eight tankers will be stationed at Key Field and work is already beginning to refresh the training of flight and maintenance crews.
"We will be transitioning pilots back from the C-27 Spartan planes and the MC-12s and getting the maintenance crews up to speed on the tankers," Chalk said. "Since we lost the tankers the maintenance crews have been pretty stagnant because private firms did the maintenance on the C-27s."
The C-27, a scaled down version of the C-130 Hercules that is one of the Air Force's workhorse cargo platforms, will be gone by the time the tankers touch down at Key Field. Chalk said they will be flown to Baltimore, Maryland but from there he didn't know what would become of the planes.
Chalk said the tankers also mark an increase of personnel as the larger aircraft require more personnel both on the flight deck and in support roles. He said the full complement of the 186th ARW should grow by more than 70 additional airmen. He said at the end of the year, the 186th ARW should have 1,150 airmen.
One of those airmen will be Tech Sgt. Joel Jones. Jones, who is typical of airmen at the 186th ARW at the time when the tankers were lost, has been a sensor operator on the MC-12 reconnaissance aircraft after serving aboard the tankers as a boomer — the airman who connects the fuel boom to the other aircraft.
"Let's face the facts. The air refueling mission was born in Meridian with the Key Brothers flight that proved it was possible to offload fuel while in flight. If ever there was a place tankers belong it is in Meridian," Jones said. "There is so much history with the refueling mission here so it just stands to reason we get the tankers back. Plus, we are so good at the mission."
And it is the fact the 186th ARW has such a sparkling resume when it comes to the refueling mission, not to mention the implementation and overall operation of the MC-12 program, that has carried a great deal of weight with the decision makers, base supporters say. The facilities at Key Field also boast long concrete runways and maintenance hangers and buildings especially suited to the converted Boeing 707s.
Gov. Phil Bryant's first executive order when he took office in 2012 was to reestablish the Mississippi Military Communities Council. The council, made up of representatives from military base communities, helps to promote the state's military missions on the national level. In Meridian, one of those proponents is Lamar McDonald,
"This is great news for the community," said McDonald. "The work the council does, along with our state and national delegates such as Congressman Greg Harper, is vital to keeping our military bases, installations and personnel in our communities. We have a great team and Bill Freeman, retired adjutant general of the Mississippi National Guard, is doing a fantastic job leading us."
McDonald said the reputation of the 186th ARW, the base facilities that impressed Air Force leaders, the partnership with Tom Williams, executive director of the Meridian Airport Authority, and the strong relationship with Meridian and Lauderdale County, all had a hand in getting the tankers back.
"Our relationships, from our delegates to the Mississippi Development Authority, to the local level is extremely important," McDonald said.
One of those delegates, Third District Congressman Gregg Harper said he is thrilled the Air Force has decided to bring back the tankers to Key Field.
“Refueling tankers ensure that this base is critical to the Air Force and our country for years to come," Harper said. "After all, thanks to the Key brothers and A.D. Hunter, Meridian is the birthplace of aerial refueling. Meridian knows how to complete the mission. Meridian understands what it takes to succeed.”
President Obama’s budget calls for a new BRAC round in 2015. Officially known as the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, BRAC is a citizen panel that selects bases for closing and submits a list to Congress for an up-or-down vote.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, a former Mississippi governor, has soothed some nerves in Meridian with congressional testimony that the Navy has little room for further infrastructure reductions.
Add to that when the FAA was thinking about cutting off funding for air traffic control at civilian airports, the FAA exempted towers at Golden Triangle Airport in Columbus, where Columbus Air Force Base is located, and Meridian’s Key Field from funding elimination, based on their importance to military operations, supporters said.
Mississippi is home to four federal military bases, two Army National Guard installations, three Air National Guard units and 85 National Guard Readiness Centers.