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The Contra Costa Times June 15, 2006

Air Force base clears tarmac for mighty jets

By Dogen Hannah

FAIRFIELD - Almost two decades of downsizing have whittled away the military's presence in the Bay Area, but the largest remaining base is bucking that trend.

The federal government is pumping almost $200 million into Travis Air Force Base, preparing it to house a squadron of the military's newest, most-advanced cargo aircraft.

The first of the Solano County base's 13 immense C-17 Globemaster III jets is scheduled to land this summer. Its arrival will validate Travis' critical national defense role, said military expert John Pike.

"It confirms Travis as being an important, strategic ... asset," said Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, an independent national defense research organization.

The C-17 squadron will be added to the Air Force's 27 KC-10 Extender cargo and air-to-air refueling jets and 33 gargantuan C-5 Galaxy cargo jets at Travis. With the arrival of the smaller but more versatile C-17's, some C-5's will go to other bases.

"The C-17 brings a different kind of mission to Travis Air Force Base," said Col. Mike Shanahan, who has been overseeing preparations for the new aircraft.

The jet fills a role between that of the larger C-5, which can carry more than a C-17 but requires longer and better runways, and smaller aircraft that can land in more places but carry less and fly slower.

That means the military can use the 174-foot-long by 170-foot-wide C-17 not only to haul large loads of equipment and troops around the world but also to deliver cargo to the front lines.

"It has the capability of getting into these small, austere airfields," Shanahan said. "Sometimes, the runway's there. Sometimes, it's just a dirt strip, and we can land on that."

A C-17 has the power and room to carry a 60-ton Abrams battle tank or 200 combat-ready soldiers. It can fly without refueling from California to Spain and can land on a runway as short as 3,000 feet.

"No other airplane the size of the C-17 can do that," Shanahan said. "It's a very, very capable airplane."

In all, the military has ordered 187 of the aircraft, the first of which entered service about a decade ago. The jet has become a workhorse and star of the war in Iraq, said Shanahan and national defense experts.

"The Army, Navy, Marines and, of course, the Air Force sees a great value in this airplane," Shanahan said. "They all are wanting more of the types of missions that this plane flies."

Travis' first C-17, dubbed "Spirit of Solano County," is scheduled to arrive Aug. 8. It probably will be sent on a mission to Iraq or Afghanistan the next day, Shanahan said.

In preparation, the Air Force is spending $187 million on 18 construction projects to house and maintain the C-17's and to train the 700 active-duty and reserve personnel that will fly and service the aircraft.

Work on several critical projects is scheduled to be completed this month. Those include a flight simulator and building to house the simulator; a squadron operations and maintenance building; and a 60,000-square-foot parts warehouse.

The capital investment comes after almost 20 years of downsizing in which the military has closed or scaled back bases around the nation. California has lost at least 29 bases and about 60 percent of the net personnel cuts nationwide since 1988.

Bay Area base closures have included the Alameda Naval Air Station, Oakland Army Depot, Mare Island Naval Shipyard and the Presidio. The Army's Fort Ord, near Monterey, also was closed.

Base boosters, California's congressional delegation and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger mobilized to keep Travis off last year's list of closures. The base employs 15,252 military and civilian personnel and annually pumps $1.2 billion into the economy, according to the Air Force.

Base boosters began lobbying a decade ago for the military and Congress to bring C-17's to Travis. They also sought engine and electronic equipment upgrades to keep C-5's, including those at Travis, in service longer.

Most recently, base boosters have been pushing state and federal government officials to put a Coast Guard unit and a California Air National Guard unit at Travis.

"We're looking for additional missions for Travis because it has the capability," said Harry Price, Fairfield's mayor. "Our job is to do the lobbying."

The Travis work force since 1983 has varied relatively little from an annual average of 15,304 civilian and military personnel. That employment track record and the C-17 squadron's arrival has encouraged base boosters.

Yet John Murphy, a former Air Force officer and principal of Public Private Solutions Group who helps communities trying to keep bases, cautioned that Travis' favored status is not assured forever.

"Does it guarantee long-term sustainment or retention of Travis?" Murphy asked. "No. But there are no guarantees."

Copyright 2006, The Contra Costa Times