911th Airlift Wing in Moon will stay open at least through September 2014

Brian Bowling
| Wednesday, March 13, 2013, 9:48 a.m.

The close-knit community surrounding the 911th Airlift Wing in Moon expressed relief on Wednesday when the Air Force said the base would continue to operate at least through September 2014.

Yet the Western Pennsylvania congressional dele­gation expects a continued fight for survival.

The Air Force in February 2012 said it would close the base as part of a national plan to cut spending and reduce its fleet of cargo planes.

Col. Craig C. Peters, the unit's commander, said the pending closure weighed heavily on personnel. The news, he said, “brings about excitement, relief and gratitude. There still remains some uncertainty and challenges ahead of us, but for today, we breathe a big sigh of relief and remain focused on the mission.”

Capt. Shawn Walleck, spokesman for the Air Force Reserve base, said the most of the 2,000 military and civilian employees delayed decisions such as buying cars.

“You kind of put everything in your life on hold because you have no idea what your future may look like,” he said.

The next challenge to the base's existence will occur in a national base realignment process in 2015, said Chip Holsworth, co-chairman of the Military Affairs Council of Western Pennsylvania.

“It's not saying that we'll be open forever,” said Holsworth, “but we're back to being the same as every other base in the country.”

The last Base Realignment and Closure Commission in 2005 initially recommended closing the Moon base, but it stayed open because of intensive lobbying by the area's congressional delegation, business and civic groups, and military retirees.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said a similar effort led to Wednesday's announcement.

“This is a perfect example of what we can accomplish when we work together, across party lines, and at multiple levels of government, along with the community,” he said.

The Pentagon singled out the 911th for closure primarily because of its size. Federal law requires the Defense Department to get congressional approval before closing any base with more than 300 civilian employees.

Though more than 2,000 military and civilian employees are stationed at the base, the Air Force calculates the civilian component is fewer than 300 and the Pentagon could act without congressional approval.

The base's closure, however, was part of an Air Force plan to decrease its 326 cargo planes. The defense spending bill the president signed in January requires it to keep a minimum of 358 planes until September. An Air Force working group decided to keep the 911th open in order to meet that mandate.

Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek confirmed the plan includes keeping eight C-130s and personnel connected to the planes.

An extension through 2014 allows the Air Force “to complete additional studies, readdress force structure needs with its stakeholders, and allow for resolution of sequestration” before the fiscal year 2015 budget cycle, she said.

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, said he will continue to press Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to keep the base open permanently. He acknowledged his constituents' relief, saying, “We don't have many days like this.”

Casey said the military can't cut $475 billion over the next 10 years, and $500 billion more if sequestration remains in effect, without closing some bases after Sept. 30, 2014.

“We're not going to wait until that day to prepare for 2015,” he said.

Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, said the working group's recommendations keep 16 KC-135 refueling tankers at the 171st Air National Guard Refueling Wing in Findlay. The Air Force also intended to reduce the number of planes and people at that base.

“We're not just going to fight to keep what we have,” Murphy said. “We're going to spend the next two years to make the base stronger and so appealing to the Air Force that officials wouldn't even want to consider closing the 911th ever again.”

Brian Bowling is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-325-4301or bbowling@tribweb.com.

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