Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald , Published April 15 2012
KC-135s sent to Grand Forks to avoid storms return homeGRAND FORKS - After a brief visit, the 24 KC-135 air-refueling tankers – many of which likely used to call Grand Forks home – returned Sunday to their bases in Nebraska and Kansas, accomplishing their two-day mission of missing tornadoes.
And it was a timely success, as a tornado did hit near McConnell Air Force Base near Wichita Saturday, and high winds damaged stuff at the base shortly after 16 tankers lifted off for Grand Forks, said Tim Flack, public affairs spokesman for the Grand Forks Air Force Base.
It was one of more than 100 tornadoes that struck across the Midwest, including one that killed five people in Oklahoma.
Quoting a statement posted Sunday on website of the Air Force’s unit at McConnell, Flack said: “The 22nd Air Refueling Wing, active duty side, has sustained minor damages to fences, power lines and trees. There are no reported injuries and no damage to aircraft.”
Eight tankers flew in from Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha late Friday afternoon and 16 flew in Saturday from McConnell, said Flack.
(The former Marine started at the base in August and is, apparently, the first civilian public affairs head at the Grand Forks base.)
By about 4 p.m., Sunday, only a couple of the visiting tankers remained at Grand Forks and were scheduled to return to their home bases later today or by Monday morning, Flack said.
The weekend mission involved about 100 personnel – including three-airmen crews – who flew in and out on the 24 tankers.
“It was an extremely successful operation and the Grand Forks (base) personnel worked from late Friday afternoon all the way through today to receive those folks and help house them,” Flack said. “We are really proud of their mission.”
It happened fast Friday as the massive storms were predicted to do big damage across Kansas and Nebraska.
Housing, meals and transportation for the crews and maintenance airmen had to be arranged.
Col. Scott Rizer, vice commander of the 319th Air Base Wing at Grand Forks, made safety the top priority for the quick mission, according to Flack.
The tankers didn’t need any refueling in the air or on the ground here because they filled up before leaving home base to have enough for the round trip, he said.
Grand Forks was an obvious place to come to avoid the heavy storms.
“A runway is a runway, but obviously we used to have a KC-135 mission, so obviously we were familiar with the aircraft and it was easy for us to park them here.”
As the base gears up for its new mission of unmanned aircraft, there are about 1,200 active duty personnel on base, Flack said.
That’s down about two-thirds since the Pentagon’s base realignment plans shifted the tanker mission away from Grand Forks beginning in 2007 when nearly 50 tankers were assigned here.
After 50 years KC-135s being stationed at the Grand Forks base, the last one departed in December 2010 for McConnell Air Force Base near Wichita, Flack said.
He can’t be sure, but it’s a good bet that very plane made a brief return this weekend.