Future of Maine Air National Guard’s Airbridge program in jeopardy

Lt. Col. Brent Stewart, left, of Brewer and Capt. Jason Tuck of Hampden do a pre-flight check list as they prepare to fly a KC-135 E on a training mission out of the Maine Air National Guard base in Bangor on Wednesday, October 6, 2010. (Bangor Daily News/Kevin Bennett)
Lt. Col. Brent Stewart, left, of Brewer and Capt. Jason Tuck of Hampden do a pre-flight check list as they prepare to fly a KC-135 E on a training mission out of the Maine Air National Guard base in Bangor on Wednesday, October 6, 2010. (Bangor Daily News/Kevin Bennett)
Posted Oct. 06, 2010, at 12:37 p.m.
Maine Air National Guard Master Sgt. Tom Curley checks an oxygen gauge on a KC-135 E as the crew prepares for a training mission on Wednesday, October 6, 2010. (Bangor Daily News/Kevin Bennett)
Maine Air National Guard Master Sgt. Tom Curley checks an oxygen gauge on a KC-135 E as the crew prepares for a training mission on Wednesday, October 6, 2010. (Bangor Daily News/Kevin Bennett)

BANGOR, Maine — As the Air Force looks to tighten its budget, the future of a key service of the Maine Air National Guard’s 101st Air Refueling Wing is in question. News on Wednesday of a possible discontinuation of personnel orders for the refueling of military aircraft jeopardizes about 150 full-time jobs on the Bangor base and could change the nature of the 101st’s mission.

Since 2003, the Airbridge program has provided in-air refueling for cargo planes, fighter jets and other aircraft headed across the Atlantic Ocean to military bases in Europe, Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as for medical evacuation and other flights returning to U.S. soil. The Bangor base is uniquely situated to perform this service due to its geographic location. The 101st also coordinates in-air refueling services for bases in New Hampshire, New Jersey and Pennsylvania that participate in the Airbridge program.

Wing commander Col. John D’Errico confirmed Wednesday that orders for the approximately 150 full-time Air National Guard members who run the Airbridge program in Bangor have been extended only until the end of this month. Those positions are typically renewed every year for 12 months.

Last week, word came that the orders would be renewed only for seven days, but on Wednesday they were extended until Oct. 31. D’Errico said that although new orders are issued every year and often come down to the wire, the sudden cutback came as a shock.

“We had heard there were going to be cuts,” he said. “We didn’t realize it was going to be so drastic.”

D’Errico said he remains hopeful that staffing for Airbridge will be fully authorized for the coming year, and noted that 38 missions have been scheduled this week for the 101st and other Airbridge units.

KC-135 Stratotankers from the 101st are on call 24 hours a day and flew more than 130 refueling missions last year alone.

The 101st also provides quick turn-around refueling for military aircraft on the ground.

“General [David] Petraeus came through here in April in 34 minutes,” D’Errico said. Petraeus, commander of the International Security Assistance Force and of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, typically plans on spending about two hours during a refueling stop, he said.

A total of about 850 Air Guard members are on the base at any given time, most engaged in routine training, maintenance and support positions. Without the active-duty personnel that carry out the refueling program, the 101st could be forced to give up the service for military aircraft and revert to its status as a training unit with no active role in the nation’s ongoing military conflicts.

Many of the refueling personnel have given up positions in the civilian sector, D’Errico said, and since last week have been on tenterhooks about their future with the 101st after the end of the month.

“We’re trying to get some answers,” D’Errico said. “We need to know what to tell our people.”

A spokesman for U.S. Sen. Susan Collins said Wednesday that pending cuts in military spending appear to be driving a reconsideration of whether air refueling should be a function of the Air National Guard or of the Air Force itself. Collins, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, is expected to meet Thursday with Air Force Undersecretary Erin Conaton to discuss the situation.

Late Wednesday afternoon, Collins issued a statement indicating her support for the 101st.

“No other Air Force unit — active, reserve or Guard — in the U.S. can deliver as much fuel as cost-effectively as the 101st,” she said. “I am confident that the Air Force leadership understands the critical role the 101st fulfills in our war efforts. My office is in contact with the Air Force staff, and as the MAINEiacs continue to support our troops … I will discuss the current and future missions assigned to the 101st with Air Force officials on Thursday.”

Sen. Olympia Snowe also expressed concern over the situation.

“The 101st Air Guard performs critical refueling operations for our military, providing jobs and supporting readiness for our nation’s defense, which is why I am concerned that stalled contract renewals for this facility’s operations would negatively impact both our economy and our national security,” Snowe said, adding that she will work with state and military officials to address the issue.

David Farmer, a spokesman for Gov. John Baldacci, said the governor is deeply concerned about the strategic implications of eliminating or curtailing the Airbridge program as well as the impact on individual Guard members and the local economy.

CORRECTION: The KC-135R air-refueling tanker previously was misidentified in pictures with this story.

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