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KC-135, new mission arrive at Niagara Falls air base

A new era at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station has officially begun. The 914th Tactical Airlift Wing hosted a ceremony Thursday to welcome the first of eight KC-135 Stratotankers that will operate from the local installation.

The planes represent a change in mission for the 914th, which will soon be renamed as an Air Refueling Wing. The aircraft to be housed locally provide mid-flight refueling for other military craft participating in various assignments. Colonel Brian Bowman, commanding officer of the 914th, noted that the KC-135 played a part in a recent bombing run by two B-2 bombers over Libya.

"That doesn't happen unless there's air refueling tankers airborne," Col. Bowman said. "Hundreds and hundreds of those missions are going on right now today. Every single day. We've been doing that for a long time in the Air Force."

The KC-135s replace the C-130 aircraft that flew out of Niagara Falls for more than 40 years, providing support for numerous U.S. military missions. The final mission involving C-130s at Niagara Falls was conducted last year.

An intensive lobbying effort involving local citizens and elected officials helped secure the new mission, long before the C-130s' work was concluded.

"We recognized in 2012 that the Air Force was going to move away from the C-130 mission across the country, cutting back quite a bit in that fleet," said John Cooper, chairman of the Niagara Military Affairs Council, or NIMAC. "This is an exciting day. We began to work then toward bringing this mission here and it's great to see it come through."

Remote drone piloting operations are also hosted at the Niagara Falls installation. 

KC-135s previously flew out of Niagara Falls, from 1994 until 2008. Until the return of the air tankers was confirmed, there was uncertainty about the future of the base upon the end of the C-130 mission. Base officials and elected leaders are hailing the preservation of jobs. An estimated 3,000 people work at the base. 

"This is the largest employer in Niagara County," said Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul. "The Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station has been a critical part of creating jobs, as well as the spinoff businesses that rely on this."

Hochul noted the presence of a beauty shop near the main entrance of the base, saying that the owner told her the business would be "wiped out" if the base were to close.

Niagara Falls mayor Paul Dyster noted that the base's employees come not only from Niagara County but Erie and Orleans Counties as well. 

"It's truly an asset to our region, not just in job creation but in all the purchases they make in the local economy," Dyster said. "They make a huge economic impact."

During the ceremony, speakers celebrated the preservation of both jobs and national defense. Col. Bowman explained after why Niagara Falls remains an important place to keep a base.

"Almost every long-range mission that goes over to Europe or somewhere in that part of the world flies over the northeastern part of the United States," he explained. "That's the shortest route to get to the target, if you will. Having more KC-135 assets in the northeast is a smart decision, strategically and tactically."

Base officials suggest there's enough space available at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station to host eight additional aircraft.

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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