BANGOR, Maine — A senior Air Force official says the decision to discontinue personnel orders in the Airbridge program at the Maine Air National Guard’s 101st Air Refueling Wing will be thoroughly reviewed in the coming weeks, according to U.S. Sen. Susan Collins.
A day after going to bat in Washington for the program, Collins will pay a visit today to the Bangor home of the MAINEiacs. Gov. John Baldacci also plans to visit the base this weekend.
Collins is scheduled to arrive at 10 a.m. Friday to learn more about the active-duty Airbridge mission, which since 2003 has fueled in-flight cargo planes, fighter jets and other aircraft bound across the Atlantic to military bases in Europe, Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as medical evacuation and other flights returning to American soil.
Collins also will bring word of her meeting on Thursday with Erin Conaton, undersecretary of the Air Force. Collins told the Bangor Daily News that the discussion was a constructive one.
“I explained that the 101st Air Refueling Wing has more than double the efficiency of any other Air Force or Air Guard unit in terms of its ability to offload fuel,” Collins said. “But there is still a lot of uncertainty, unfortunately.”
Collins, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Conaton has agreed to conduct a thorough assessment of the Airbridge program in Bangor over the next two weeks, including the efficiency of the operation and the strategic location of the base.
The future of the Airbridge program in Bangor is uncertain after news from the Air Force this week that orders may not be reauthorized in the new fiscal year for the approximately 150 full-time active duty personnel who make it possible. This week, base administrators were informed that most of the active duty orders would be renewed only until the end of this month, effectively ending the 24-hour-a-day Airbridge service. The abrupt change in orders also would leave many full-time personnel jobless, although they would retain their status as part-time members of the Air Guard.
Wing commander Col. John D’Errico said on Wednesday that losing the Airbridge authorization would mean the 101st would revert to its primary pre-2003 status as an Air Guard training unit, although it would retain some active military refueling operations.
The Airbridge program in Bangor not only uses its own resources to refuel aircraft in midflight but also coordinates and schedules refueling from participating bases in New Hampshire, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
The program remains essential to military operations, Collins said, as evidenced by the 38 air and ground refueling missions scheduled through the Bangor base this week. The proposed cuts reflect defense budget streamlining that takes into consideration the drawdown of troops in Iraq but not the ongoing surge in Afghanistan, Collins said.
The $380 million allocated to the Air Force in the defense appropriations bill pending in the Senate may need to be beefed up to allow for continued operations in Afghanistan, Collins said.
“With the surge of troops in Afghanistan, the need for aerial refueling will be strong,” she said. “I think what happened here is an example of [budget] planning based on inaccurate assumptions.”
Gov. John Baldacci said he remains in close contact with all four members of Maine’s congressional delegation as well as base administrators. He said he is pleased that the Air Mobility Command has agreed to conduct a close review of the Airbridge program in Bangor.
“I am very confident that they will compete very well with anyone anywhere” in terms of efficient in-air refueling, he said.
Baldacci also expressed dismay at the human impact of the sudden decision not to renew orders for the active-duty personnel, many of whom have given up civilian opportunities to carry out the Airbridge service.
“The men and women serving our country don’t deserve this kind of treatment,” the governor said, adding that he plans to schedule a visit to the base this weekend.
Collins said she expects the MAINEiacs will shine when the Air Mobility Command conducts its two-week review.
“But the fact remains, budget cuts are coming,” she said.