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Willow Grove air base operations extended

| Wednesday, April 12, 2006

WASHINGTON - The military on Tuesday directed the air base at Willow Grove, in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, to extend flight operations of the 111th Fighter Wing by one year to 2010.

Last year, the federal base closure commission voted to cease flight operations at Willow Grove by 2009, and to move the fighter wing elsewhere.

The decision was made by the Air Force and National Guard Bureau. A statement said the extension will allow the Pennsylvania Air National Guard to fight in the war on terrorism and respond to homeland defense missions.

"The 111th Fighter Wing has been a valuable partner in the defense of our nation," Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said in a statement. "We are encouraged by the Air Force's commitment to the Air National Guard and look forward to working with them as we explore new missions for the Pennsylvania Air National Guard."

The statement also said a war-fighting headquarters or a civil engineering unit is being considered for the state, but it did not say where.

Willow Grove, in suburban Philadelphia, is home to the Air Force, Navy reserves and other military units. The 111th is an Air National Guard unit that operates the A-10 "Warthog" airplane.

The fate of the fighter wing has been in question, partly because a federal judge ruled in a lawsuit brought by Gov. Ed Rendell and others that the Pentagon didn't have the authority to deactivate the unit. That decision is under appeal.

Rendell called the one-year extension "an incomplete and inefficient solution" and said efforts to maintain the operations should continue.

"It makes no more sense to abandon military flying operations by the 111th in 2010 than did the proposal to end them in 2009," Rendell said in a news release.

Robert Traynham, a spokesman for Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Penn Hills, said the senator was notified Monday about the military's plans and is pleased. In meetings with military leaders, Santorum has asked that the military extend the deadline for keeping the 111th in operation, and that a new mission, such as homeland defense, be found for Willow Grove.

As directed by the base closure commission, the statement released Tuesday said an "enclave" will be created to support the non-flying missions of the 111th. It also will support the 270th Engineering Installation Support Squadron and Army units incorporated into an Armed Forces Reserve Center planned for Willow Grove, the statement said.

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