BANGOR, Maine — Even before Maine Air National Guard’s 101st Air Refueling Wing learned that the Boeing Co. was awarded a contract to build 179 new aerial refueling tankers, the 101st and the state’s congressional delegation already had started petitioning for the new planes to be stationed in Bangor.
Funding for the wing’s Airbridge program, which had been threatened last fall, has been extended through the end of the current federal fiscal year.
The MAINEiacs are assigned 10 Eisenhower-era KC-135 aircraft, which essentially are flying gas stations that can refuel other airplanes, a crucial function during wartime and disasters, Lt. Col. Debbie Kelley, a spokeswoman for 101st in Bangor, said Tuesday.
U.S. Sens. Susan Collins, a member of the Senate’s Armed Services Committee and the Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, and Olympia Snowe, and U.S. Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree sent a letter to the secretary of the Air Force suggesting eight criteria for selecting future homes for the new tankers.
The Feb. 14 letter to Air Force Secretary Michael Donley urges him “to ensure that the criteria reflect real-world operational requirements, the value of close proximity to key refueling tracks in providing for efficient refueling operations, and the efficiencies and cost savings that result from bases co-located with civilian airports utilizing joint use agreements.”
The letter ends with the delegation members stating they “look forward to working with you to ensure units such as the 101st ARW are prepared for arrival of the Air Force’s next generation tanker.”
U.S. Air Force and Department of Defense officials announced Feb. 24 that Chicago-based Boeing was awarded a $35 billion contract to build the new aerial refuelers, dubbed KC-46As, to replace old KC-135 tankers.
In early March, the Air Force Times, a newspaper dedicated to covering the U.S. Air Force, ran an article that gave a short list of 11 bases that may receive the new tankers, citing “Air Force documents submitted as part of the contractor search.” The list includes the Pease Air National Guard Base in New Hampshire, home to the Granite State’s 157th Air Refueling Wing.
The fact that Pease made the short list is “a good thing for our neck of the woods,” Kelley said, adding that Pease and Bangor are both part of a New England task force and often work together.
Kelley also cautioned that the tentative short list may not be entirely accurate. Wing commander Col. John D’Errico informed her that “there is a base or two on that list that don’t have tankers” and it doesn’t make sense they would get new refueling aircraft, she said.
The Boeing contract calls for the company to have the first 18 air tankers completed by 2017, and where they will be placed has not been decided, Capt. James Bressendorss, a spokesman for the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command, said Tuesday.
“No basing decisions have been made yet,” he said. “We just signed the contract. That has an entirely separate process.”
The Air Force strategic basing process will begin shortly, and “it’s the secretary of the Air Force and chief of staff that will make the final decision,” Bressendorss said, adding that the basing decision for the first 18 aircraft is expected to be made in late 2012.
Kelley said local military officers already have contacted fellow Air Force leaders to inquire about where the replacement tankers might call home and to lobby on behalf of the Bangor base.
“I know our colonels and generals have been making sure the Air Force knows what we’re capable of,” she said. “I would think with our location we would have to be looked at. I don’t think anybody is worrying about it.”
The first KC-135 flew into Bangor in 1977, Kelley said. The last KC-135 manufactured was delivered to the Pentagon in 1965, which means the newest KC-135 plane is 45 years old.
At the invitation of Collins, Gen. Raymond Johns Jr., commander of the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command, visited Bangor in November to tour the 101st Air Refueling Wing, assess the unit’s Airbridge program and observe the unit’s capability.
The Bangor base increased its capacity after Sept. 11, 2001 — adding approximately 150 full-time active duty personnel to the roster for the Airbridge program — but some of those additional personnel heard last year that their positions would not be funded past Nov. 30, 2010.
But funding to maintain most of the full-time active duty personnel was extended until the end of this coming September, Kelley said.
The Bangor base refueled more than 1,100 aircraft in the last year and now handles or manages nearly 15 percent of the air refueling missions worldwide for the U.S. military and its allies, she said. In addition to the in-flight refueling done locally, the Bangor base also coordinates and schedules refueling for bases in New Hampshire, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Kelley said it makes sense to place new tankers in Bangor because “our geographic location is so prime.”