Friday, October 29, 2010
Air Force gives air bridge 30-day reprieve
By David Sharp - The Associated Press Posted : Friday Oct 29, 2010 5:38:37 EDT PORTLAND, Maine — The Air Force has delayed dismantling a National Guard program that provides in-air refueling of military aircraft headed to and from Iraq, Afghanistan and Europe, giving a 30-day reprieve to more than 400 personnel in Maine, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, Sen. Susan Collins said Thursday. Gen. Raymond Johns, commander of the Air Mobility Command at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., will visit the Maine National Guard’s 101st Air Refueling Wing in Bangor on Nov. 4 as part of an assessment that will determine the future of the so-called air bridge program, said Collins, R-Maine. The Air Force had notified National Guard and Reserve personnel that they would stand down at month’s end under a budget-cutting directive, but those orders are now being extended until Nov. 30, she said. Related reading • Funds low for standby reservists • Cost reductions could affect vital air bridge Collins, who sits on the Armed Services Committee, said she hopes the general’s visit will lead to the vast majority of personnel being retained through October 2011. “I am hopeful that we’re making progress on the vast majority of the jobs, but I recognize that there will be some individuals for whom the active duty order won’t be renewed past Nov. 30,” Collins told The Associated Press after being briefed by the Air Force undersecretary. The program is called the “air bridge” because it contributes to the flow of military personnel, equipment and materiel that’s needed to support the war in Afghanistan, and continuing operations in Iraq. For critical flights, military aircraft can continue flying while taking on jet fuel from an aerial tanker as the two aircraft fly in tandem at more than 400 mph. About 1,000 planes in the past year have received fuel in this way under the air bridge program, officials say. In Bangor, the Maine National Guard’s 101st Air Refueling Wing holds a strategic location as the last U.S. base for outgoing flights and the first for incoming flights. Its KC-135 tankers can reach the primary refueling route over Nova Scotia in just 18 minutes flying time. The decision to cut the program caused consternation for the program’s supporters because most active-duty refueling tankers are located farther away in the Midwest. It costs $100 a minute to keep a KC-135 in the air, Collins said, so extra time and travel to reach the refueling zones over the North Atlantic would carry a steep price tag. Contributing to the uncertainty is the fact that Congress adjourned without approving a budget. The Air Force asked for an extra $378 million, much of which would go to Air Mobility Command; the Senate Appropriations Committee has approved the extra money but the House has not, Collins said.