WICHITA, Kan. — As work begins in Wichita to construct the new home of the U.S. Air Force's next generation air-to-air tanker, leaders in Southwestern Illinois said they still see a bright future for Scott Air Force Base -- with or without the next generation of aerial refuelers.
"Right now the current generation of tankers, the KC-135s are still at Scott and they're going to be there for quite some time," said Ellen Krohne, executive director of the Leadership Council of Southwestern Illinois. "In the meantime, we will continue to look to build infrastructure that will support a broad variety of growth at the base."
The fight for the next generation of tankers went on for more than a decade before the Pentagon gave the nod to McConnell Air Force Base.
In 2003, U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) carried a rusty piece of a KC-135 refueling tanker into an Armed Services Committee meeting.
Roberts was hoping the three-foot chunk from a tanker's wing would provide a dramatic visual to drive home the urgency to replace a fleet that was 50 years old at the time.
"For the safety of our nation and airmen," he said.
Eleven years later, Roberts joined Air Force brass and other elected officials in using a dozen shiny shovels for Monday's ceremonial ground-breaking at McConnell for $197 million in new construction to prepare for the new KC-46A tankers.
After a lengthy selection process and considerable lobbying by congressional delegations and leaders from communities trying to land the new tanker, the Air Force tentatively selected McConnell in May 2013 to be the first active-duty base to receive the new tankers.
The official stamp of approval came this spring. The first of the 36 aircraft targeted for the Wichita air base will begin to arrive in February 2016.
McConnell's selection is a significant step toward ensuring it remains a part of the Air Force's plans for decades to come at a time when defense spending cuts are shutting down military installations.
"It has taken all of those 11 years to make this happen," Roberts told the crowd that gathered in sweltering heat on a flight line near where three hangars will be built. "There were a lot of curveballs along the way.
"We stayed in the batter's box and kept swinging."
Kansas leaders called the work leading up to the first tanker's arrival is a home run for the local economy while Krohne admitted it is a blow locally.
"We recognize that in the first round they came out on top," Krohne said. "But we're going to keep working hard to insure we continue to see good growth at Scott Air Force Base."
Laura Taylor, director of communication for U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Belleville, said while Kansas was awarded the first round of contracts for the new tanker, local leaders are hopeful they will get some of the tankers in future rounds.
"This process will continue for ten to 15 years. Just because we lost out in the first round, doesn't mean we won't get some of the contracts in the future," Taylor said.
Archer Western Aviation Partners -- a joint-venture partnership that is based in Chicago and made up of three companies -- is the general contractor for the McConnell work, said Ben Davis, project manager for the U.S. Corps of Army Engineers, which is overseeing the McConnell construction.
The money comes out of the $219 million Congress has allotted for numerous pieces of the tanker work at McConnell, though the $197 million is the biggest chunk. That amount is for building the three hangars and an aircraft parking apron.
Before the initial work for the hangar and apron construction starts in late August, Davis said, extensive permits must be obtained from the Federal Aviation Administration just to bring in tall cranes.
Tall objects at an air base can be a problem, he noted.
The project is scheduled to be completed in March 2017.
Two hangars - one with a single bay and the other with two bays -- are set to be finished by the time the first tanker arrives in early 2016, Davis said. A three-bay hangar will be completed the following year, he added.
McConnell has been home to tankers for decades, but it was never a given the base would be the one to get the new aircraft.
"It took a lot letters, a lot of work," U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo said.
While the construction will bring in local dollars in the short term, solidifying McConnell's existence down the road is significant because the base has an annual economic impact of more than $550 million on the Wichita area.
That kind of money fueled local efforts to lobby for the tanker. Gen. Darren McDew was on the receiving end of many of those letters from local and state leaders.
McDew is commander of the air mobility command at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, where much of the selection work was done.
After listing other new Air Force aircraft that have made McConnell their initial base, McDew told Monday's gathering, "McConnell is first again and a cornerstone of our nation's air refueling."
The tankers extend the nation's reach in carrying out military operations.
"The also allow America to extend mercy no matter where disaster strikes," he said.
Boeing has a $35 billion contract to build and deliver 179 new tankers by 2027. The KC-135 tankers will be phased out.
Information for this story came from the Wichita Eagle, a McClatchy newspaper, and News-Democrat reporter Scott Wuerz.