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Flight Diverted 

For now, Spokane’s big hopes for new tanker planes at Fairchild have been dashed — so what happens next?

click to enlarge A C-17 Globemaster III at Fairchild Air Force Base. - U.S. AIR FORCE
  • U.S. Air Force
  • A C-17 Globemaster III at Fairchild Air Force Base.

As Spokane regional leaders argued whether a proposed tribal casino would encroach upon Fairchild Air Force Base, both sides seized upon one fact: Fairchild had been nominated as one of four contenders to serve as the first active-duty operating base for new KC-46A refueling tankers.

To opponents of the casino, the possibility was one more reason to stop the base from being threatened. To supporters, it was proof that even though the Pentagon knew about the proposed casino, the Air Force was still willing to consider Spokane to host the first wave of new tankers.

But last week, those hopes were dealt a major blow. McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, Kan., was chosen as the preferred base for the first 36 tankers. Fairchild was left with the disappointing tied-for-second status of “reasonable alternative.” For now, Spokane County loses out on the tankers, and all the economic stimulus they could have brought.

The Air Force announcement said McConnell was in a better location, with cheaper construction, than the alternatives. The new tankers will train in Altus, Okla., for example, located less than 250 miles from McConnell. And according to an Air Force PowerPoint presentation, choosing McConnell will save $36.9 million in construction costs over Fairchild.

Rich Hadley, president of Greater Spokane Inc., says in retrospect that one thing could have given Fairchild a better shot: “Pick Spokane up and move it to Kansas.” To understand why, take out a compass, draw a 1,000-mile radius around Kansas, and see how many other Air Force bases it covers. Now do the same with Fairchild.

Some continued to speculate about encroachment issues. “It would be very helpful to know whether the Spokane Tribe’s proposed casino figured in the decision, if only to put the issue to rest for good,” the Spokesman-Review wrote in an editorial last week.

The answer is: No, the casino didn’t come into play.

“The proposed multi-use facility near Fairchild AFB was not considered in the decision process,” Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek says in a statement. While the Air Force assessed existing encroachment at Fairchild — like the mobile home park in the base’s crash zone — it was never a “key finding or a major consideration.” In fact, in the initial criteria used to select candidates for the tankers, encroachment was worth only a measly two points out of 100.

The quest to bring the tankers to Fairchild isn’t quite over yet. In the upcoming months, environmental impact studies will look at both McConnell and Fairchild before a final decision is made. Technically, the Air Force could still choose the “reasonable alternative” instead of the “preferred alternative,” but Stefanek says that’s never happened before.

For now, the Fairchild community is left asking where to go next. In 2018, another base — possibly Fairchild — will receive the next round of KC-46A tankers. But some community leaders, like Greg Bever, chair of GSI’s Forward Fairchild committee, worry that another Base Realignment and Closure process will shut down bases before then.

“I want to make sure we’re BRAC-proof,” says Bever. “We can’t control geographic locations. We can’t control what other bases are doing.”

What the region can do to help Fairchild is limited. Bever says it can work to fix current encroachment problems, like the mobile home park, and prevent future ones. It can continue to rally the community behind the base.

In the meantime, Washington’s politicians haven’t stopped lobbying. “We’re going to continue to highlight what Fairchild has to offer,” U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers says. “The military is really refocusing its attention on the Asian Pacific. Fairchild is in a very strategic location.”

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