Spokane Journal of Business

Fairchild Air Force Base doubles down on KC-135

Passed over on new KC-46, West Plains installment wants more old tankers

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-—Katie Ross
Col. Charles McDaniel, new wing commander at Fairchild Air Force Base, shown here near a KC-135, says budgeting, sequestration, and force reductions are potential challenges for the base.

Col. Charles “Brian” McDaniel, 92nd Air Refueling Wing commander at Fairchild Air Force Base, says he’s identified his main objective for the base, since taking command on July 25. 

“For me, I want it to be the center of excellence in air refueling,” he says. 

McDaniel previously spent two years as vice commander of the 18th Wing, the largest combat wing in the U.S. Air Force, at Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa, Japan. McDaniel graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1991 with a degree in history and received his pilot’s wings in 1993 at Vance Air Force Base in Enid, Okla. 

Fairchild is comprised of the 92nd Air Refueling Wing, the 141st Air Refueling Wing of the Washington Air National Guard, the 336th Training Group of the Air Education and Training Command, the Armed Forces Reserve Center, and 14 other tenant organizations. 

The 92nd Air Refueling Wing provides in-air refueling, cargo airlifting, and aero-medical evacuation to U.S. operations around the world. 

Fairchild currently has just over 4,500 military personnel, including active duty, Washington Air National Guard, and Armed Forces Reserve Center members. 

About 8 percent of the base’s active duty population, or about 230 airmen, are deployed at this time to places such as Southwest Asia, East Africa, South America, the South Pacific, and other bases in the U.S., McDaniel says.

The base also has about 1,400 civilian employees and just over 3,200 dependents, amounting to about 9,200 people who live or work on the base. Between its total payroll, local contract expenditures, and job creation value, the base claims to have had an economic impact of $395 million for the 2013 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, 2013. 

Last spring, Fairchild lost its bid to become the main base for the Air Force’s new upcoming refueling tanker, known as the KC-46 Pegasus. The KC-46 is meant to replace the current KC-135 Stratotanker, which has been the Air Force’s main refueling plane for more than 50 years. The first bases that will be getting the KC-46 will be Altus Air Force Base, in Altus, Okla., and McConnell Air Force Base, in Wichita, Kan.

 Since starting his new position, McDaniel has expressed a desire to bring to Fairchild some of the KC-135 tankers that leave other bases as those bases get the KC-46. 

“The tanker 135 mission will not go away, because there’s over 400 KC-135s in the DOD (U.S. Department of Defense) inventory,” he says. “The KC-46, we’re only going to buy 179.”

Fairchild currently has about 30 KC-135s assigned to it. 

“That’s not to say I don’t want the 46 to come here,” McDaniel says. “But once that’s decided, if we’re awarded the 46, we still won’t get them until after 2021 or 2022.”

Fairchild will compete in 2017 in the next active-duty operating base bid process for the KC-46, McDaniel says. 

“Until then, we have a mission here at Fairchild, and that is the KC-135,” he says. 

McDaniel says he wants to make Fairchild the go-to base for KC-135 modification and maintenance. Currently, McConnell is the center for the Air Force’s tankers; all modifications to the planes usually take place there. McDaniel says his goal is to take over the KC-135 operations as McConnell turns its focus to the KC-46. 

“I want to take on the responsibility of continuing the KC-135 until they don’t exist,” he says. “We have that capacity here.”

It probably will be four or five years before this could become a reality for the base, McDaniel says.

“That will be a vision and something we will strive for,” he says. “But, the things that I will do on the base will not hinder our competitive edge for the 46. I will not build something just for the 135; I will think of the next aircraft.”

Currently, Fairchild doesn’t have any major construction projects on-base, McDaniel says. 

The base’s budget for the next few years contains projects such as replacing the facilities for the base operations department. The department houses the weather and mission planning departments and passenger terminal, where everyone flying in or out of the base is processed. 

“We’re going to try to make more of a one-stop, where (crews) only have to go to one building and get everything they need instead of going to multiple buildings,” McDaniel says. 

 Another potential upcoming project is a civil engineering complex, which would house the base’s structural, electrical, and road construction personnel and equipment. These departments also are currently spread throughout the base, McDaniel says. 

“We’re also looking to procure and develop a firing range,” McDaniel says. “We currently have one, but it has decayed over time.”

There are two ways the base could go about doing this. Base funds could be used to build a new firing range on its grounds. Or, the base could form a partnership to build a shared-use firing range off the base.

“It’s an initiative with the locals that would be joint-use between us, federal, local, and state agencies, and we would all kind of chip in and develop it, and then build it off the installation,” he says. 

Fairchild’s role in the survival training known as SERE, or survival, evasion, resistance, and escape, could also be expanding in the future. 

SERE training teaches military personnel how to survive in all sorts of weather conditions, how to conceal themselves, how to conduct themselves if captured, and how to escape capture. 

Fairchild currently is a partner unit to Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, N.M., and provides support for that base’s survival training. 

“We currently hold water survival (training) here on the base,” McDaniel says. “What they want to bring to Fairchild is the ejection seat or parachute training.”

McDaniel estimates that about 15,000 students go through the SERE training here annually. The addition at  parachute training wouldn’t add more students per year, McDaniel says, but they would be staying at the base longer. 

McDaniel says he currently sees a few challenges on the base. 

“You can always say budget,” he says. “Sequestration (also) will be coming back in 2016 … that looms out there. That’s an issue that will hit home to a lot of people.”

McDaniel says the base is under a continuing resolution funding package for fiscal year 2015, which is not a sequestration year. 

“During these years when we don’t have sequestration, I’m trying to get everything set and ready to go when, or if, that hits in 2016,” he says. 

Sequestration refers to automatic cuts in government spending, across domestic and defense spending, as part of the Budget Control Act of 2011. 

Another challenge is that the base went through a large active-duty force reduction this summer, McDaniel says, and could see another next summer. 

Operations tempo is also always a challenge at an air force base, McDaniel says. 

This past summer, the base’s operations were as high as they were in the surge of 2007 and 2008, when the military was extensively engaged in both Afghanistan and Iraq. 

“That caught a lot of people off guard,” he says. “We are drawing down in Afghanistan, and we are seeing some of that effect. Some of our guys are coming back home; but you never know where you’re going to go next.”

Moving forward, McDaniel says he’s focused on preparing for the future and sustaining operations, as well as training ready airmen and preparing those who may be exiting the military to reenter civilian life.  

“To me, that means you’re ready for your duty, no matter where it’s at in whatever conditions,” he says. 

McDaniel took over the responsibilities of base commander from Col. Brian Newberry, who retired this summer after 23 years in the Air Force. 

Newberry took command at Fairchild in 2012, and now serves as Executive Director of Leadership Spokane. 

McDaniel, who was raised in Tennessee, says he always wanted to be in the military. 

“My father was in the service for six years, from ’66 to ’72,” he says. 

McDaniel has been involved in various types of military organizations since the age of 12, when he joined the local chapter of the Civil Air Patrol.He stayed in the organization until he enrolled at the University of Tennessee, where he became a Reserve Officer’s Training Corps cadet.

“It was Civil Air Patrol that really got me started and got me really hooked on the Air Force,” he says. “…My dad put the bait on, set the hook, and Civil Air Patrol is what started reeling me in.” 

McDaniel says the biggest difference he sees between Spokane and Okinawa is how openly the community here supports the base. 

“That goes a long way in an airman’s eyes,” he says. “It makes it easier for them, when they see that support, and it opens up the opportunity for them to give back to the community.”

Katie Ross
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Reporter Katie Ross covers manufacturing, hospitality, and government at the Journal of Business. An outdoor enthusiast and snowboard fanatic, Katie is a recent graduate of Gonzaga University.  

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