Aging Aircraft Make the 911th a Target for Closure
Airmen at the base say they are disappointed with the decision to retire the wing's aircraft and close the base.
Lt. Col. Chuck Sargent has piloted missions to South Asia and the Middle East aboard the C-130 Hercules aircraft.
“I landed one of these on a 3,000-foot dirt road in Afghanistan,” said Sargent, standing below the nose of a C-130 parked in Hangar 291 at the 911th Airlift Wing in Moon.
“But you know, I’m just a part-time guy,” he said with a smile.
The days that those C-130s have in the sky may be numbered: The Air Force announced plans earlier this month to shutter the Moon-based 911th Airlift Wing as a part of a $4.7 billion military restructuring plan.
“If we lose our aircraft, we lose our mission, and yes, the base closes,” said Master Sgt. Mark Winklosky, a spokesman for the 911th. “But the reservists here are very resilient.”
A base slated for closure
Spanning some 60 feet from nose to tail, the eight steel-gray C-130s housed at the 911th function as flying tractor-trailer or pick-up trucks, according to the base’s airmen. The aircraft deliver everything from cargo to paratroopers, and they sometimes reconfigure as a mobile hospital for troops in combat zones.
The 911th's C-130s are also some of the oldest tactical aircraft still flying for the U.S. military. That's a reason that the military initially targeted the base for closure in 1995 and 2005.
"They've been all over the world," said Chief Master Sgt. Terrence Keblish. "They may be old, but trust me, they're equally capable."
Pennsylvania lawmakers in recent weeks have met with military leaders in Washington, D.C., to appeal the decision to close the base. Officials hope to delay the closing or have the military give the base a new mission if it should lose its C-130s.
For now, the 911th's reservists, employees and aircraft are in limbo. Though air bases across the country are set to undergo realignments under the plan, the 911th is the only one slated to close.
“Now we have leaders and some members of Congress who have said that they support the base and are trying to stop the closing,” Sargent said. “We just have to wait and see what happens.”
The Air Force will announce its plans March 6 for more than 1,300 reservists and 318 civilian personnel who work at the base, Winklosky said.
Missions in the Middle East
The 911th and its group of C-130s were frequently called upon during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
From September 2001 to September 2003, its security forces squadron remained 100 percent mobilized.
Keblish said the 911th blended seamlessly with active-duty troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Its reservists and aircraft garnered a series of Air Force honors for safety and efficiency during the decade-long impasse.
The airmen said the C-130’s versatility lent well to the mission in Iraq. The aircraft’s flexible design meant it could land on dirt pathways, airdrop supply loads of as much as 42,000 pounds or transport troops into hostile areas with equal agility. Its cabin can be reconfigured in more than 35 ways.
"When you're over there, there's no difference [between active-duty personnel and reservists]," said Keblish, who served aboard a C-130 during his missions in Iraq. "You're there to support your mission, and we’re out there competing for those honors. For us, that's our Super Bowl."
The 911th's planes brought home more than 20 reservists as recently as Feb. 20 from duty in Afghanistan, and the base has been flying a series of regular missions to South America in recent months.
Leaving an economic mark
Sally Haas, president of the Pittsburgh Airport Area Chamber of Commerce, said as many as 2,500 jobs, including civilians and contractors, and $114 million in annual salaries in the airport region could be lost if the Pentagon goes through with the closure.
"For the military, it's about cost-cutting and effectiveness," Haas said earlier this month in remarks to members of the Moon Area School Board. "Pittsburgh has the eight oldest C-130s in the aircraft fleet. So they went after the low hanging fruit while making the cuts."
Despite its aging aircraft, the 911th is one of the most cost-effective bases in the country, largely because of its relationship with the neighboring commercial airport, local officials said.
The 911th and the neighboring Pennsylvania Air National Guard's 171st Refueling Wing share four runways with Pittsburgh International, which the Allegheny County Airport Authority maintains. The Air Force pays $20,000 each year for the 911th to have access to those runways.
With flights at Pittsburgh International operating at just 15 percent capacity, C-130s at the base take to the skies as many as 340 days each year.
“There is another reserve unit in Georgia that pays for runway maintenance, fire safety, air traffic control, everything,” said Sargent. “Here they don’t have to pay for any of that. The airport does that. It’s just efficient.”
Reservists in limbo
After serving in the Air Reserve for more than 16 years, including multiple missions overseas, Keblish said he was dismayed to learn of renewed plans to close the 911th.
"I'll be honest, it's disappointing," Keblish said. "They push us to be efficient; we were told it all comes down to budget and cost. We've saved the Air Force $42 million in [phased aircraft inspection] maintenance since 2007."
Sargent said he’s what some call a reserve baby: He’s spent each of his 17 years in the Air Force Reserve at the 911th in Moon, and he has mixed feelings about seeing the C-130s at the base forever grounded.
“It’s like anything, you could get sentimental," Sargent said of the aircraft retirement. "But things change."