[Editor’s Note: No one is a fan of BRAC, and here’s another example of why. Fortunately some forward-thinking folks at the 914th saw the writing on the wall and left the mechanisms in place to support a return to duty as an aerial refueling wing. The ramp at Niagara Falls will be back to what it once was as the unit prepares to transition once more to the Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker.]

The Air Force Reserve unit at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station is about to get its first new mission since its founding in 1963, and the local lawmakers and base advocates who pushed for it think the move will keep the base operating for many years to come.

The 914th Airlift Wing, which has always flown cargo planes, will switch to flying KC-135 refueling tankers in a plan to be announced next week in President Obama’s fiscal 2017 budget, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and other local lawmakers announced Thursday.

A Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker over Niagara Falls, New York. (Photo courtesy of the Buffalo News)
A Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker over Niagara Falls, New York. (Photo courtesy of the Buffalo News)

It’s a back-to-the-future move, in a way, given that the Air National Guard unit at the base flew KC-135s from 1994 through 2008, leaving the infrastructure in place for a move back to tankers if that’s what the Air Force were to need.

And with the Air Force about to cut its fleet of cargo planes, local lawmakers and base advocates lobbied for bringing KC-135s back to Niagara Falls to guarantee the 914th a brighter future.

“Not only will these tankers help keep people at work; they will enhance the NFARS mission for the next two decades,” Schumer said.

The senator said the base’s location on the Canadian border and relative closeness Europe played a key role in the Air Force decision.

Eight KC-135s will be located at the Niagara base, although the exact timing of their arrival remains unknown. They will replace the 12 aging C-130s that have been flown by the 914th and the 107th Air Wing, the National Guard unit at the base, which in recent years converted to remotely flying unmanned Reaper drones.

The move follows an intense lobbying effort by the Niagara Military Affairs Council and the entire Western New York congressional delegation.

“This is just huge for the base,” said John A. Cooper Sr., chairman of the military advocacy group, which has successfully fought two federal attempts to close the base in the last quarter century. “The mission that is going to be coming back here is an enduring mission, one that we know is needed in the Air Force.”

Cooper said his group learned from Pentagon officials four years ago that the Air Force had long-range plans to cut its fleet of C-130s.

“We saw that as a threat to us,” Cooper said. “So we started thinking strategically, and asking: What do we have to offer the Air Force?”

Members from the 107th New York Air National Guard and members from the 914th Air Force Reserves arrive home after delivering aid to Haiti. (U.S. Air Forc Photo/ Tech Sgt. Cathy Perretta)
Members from the 107th New York Air National Guard and members from the 914th Air Force Reserves arrive home after delivering aid to Haiti. (U.S. Air Forc Photo/ Tech Sgt. Cathy Perretta)

What the Niagara Falls base had, and what was lacking at other reserve bases that fly cargo planes, is the infrastructure in place to handle refueling tankers that perform the delicate task of refueling Air Force planes while in flight.

The base underwent a multimillion-dollar upgrade before the Air National Guard unit there switched to a tanker mission in 1994. And ever since, local lawmakers have fought to keep that infrastructure in place, knowing that one day it might come in handy, said Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence.

“Over the years, our team fought to make sure that infrastructure wasn’t cannibalized,” Collins said.

And once it became clear that the Air Reserve unit’s cargo mission might be under threat, local lawmakers quickly focused on the possibility of returning refueling tankers to Niagara Falls.

“NFARS is the perfect location for the KC-135s,” said Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who joined Schumer in meeting with and calling top Air Force officials to press for the new mission for the Niagara Reserve unit.

It was important, Collins said, for the base to land another, more-enduring flying mission, rather than allowing the Air Force to consider moving the 914th to a drone mission like the one flown by the local Air National Guard unit.

“Absent the air base, you might not even have an airport in Niagara Falls,” Collins said. “To have the Air Force flying airplanes out of there, that keeps the control tower operating, the runway operating.”

It also keeps plenty of people employed. Advocates for the base said it supports about 3,000 full- and part-time jobs, including 1,987 reservists and 630 guardsmen.

“This is a great victory for the dedicated team at the Niagara Falls base and the Western New York economy,” said Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, who was also involved in the effort to bring the tanker mission to the base.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo agreed, saying: “The Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station plays a crucial role in both our national security and the strength of the local economy and workforce – and this decision by the Air Force to bring new refueling tankers to the base was the right call to make.”

The original article can be viewed here.

(Featured Photo: Under the new force structure realignment, one C-130 from the 914th Airlift Wing, Niagara Falls International Airport Air Reserve Station, N.Y., will be transferred to Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark., to support a new C-130H2 formal training unit.  USAF photo by Staff Sgt. Joseph McKee.)