August 22nd, 2007 04:07 EST
Alaska Air National Guard Unit Prepares for Larger Role at Elmendorf
Air Force National Guard Col. Chuck Foster is going to miss his Tastee Freez.
As 176th Wing here prepares to move to its new home on nearby Elmendorf Air Force Base, the local haunt for ice cream and burgers blocks away will be just one of the emotional ties that Foster and the rest will have to cut.
“This is our home. I have been here since 1990. I like it here. The community likes us here,” said Foster, who serves as vice wing commander for the 1,500-airman-strong unit. “The emotional attachment is the thing. We’re really going to feel bad about leaving Kulis.”
The nearby Tastee Freez is so closely tied to Kulis that it formed the “Ice Cream Support Squadron” in 2005 and provides ice cream sundaes for unit Christmas parties and deployments. Photos of the unit and its history there adorn the diner’s walls.
But, the colonel said, the move is needed to expand the mission of the base.
Kulis is located on 129 acres of neatly manicured real estate adjacent to the Anchorage International Airport. Relics of the base’s fighter jet flying history jut from the lawn mounted on posts and posed as if still in flight. Behind the armory offices though, is a crowded flight line that is only expected to become fuller.
“We can’t grow,” Foster said. “If we had to put every airplane we owned on the ramp here, you’d have to get the shoehorn out.”
Under the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure recommendations, the base is expected to gain four more C-130 Hercules cargo planes to its airlift fleet. It now has eight C-130s, and four HC-130s. The HC-130 is an extended-range, combat rescue version of the C-130 transport aircraft. The HC-130 can perform extended searches and airdrop pararescuemen and survival equipment to isolated survivors. Also, larger helicopters are being developed for the base’s rescue missions. It now has six HH-60s Pavehawks.
In addition, the wing’s 249th Airlift Squadron is forming an association with an active-duty counterpart on Elmendorf Air Force Base, the 517th Airlift Squadron, to fly C-17 Globemaster III aircraft on missions worldwide. Collocation is better to accommodate the association and the mission, Foster said. The 249th already is providing pilots and crews to fly the planes.
“Overall, it’s a benefit to the state of Alaska,” Foster said.
About $143 million in construction is planned, and some ground has been broken on projects at Elmendorf. Most of the projects are slated for fiscal 2008 and 2009, and major moves will begin in summer and fall 2010, when the buildings become available, Foster said.
The move will consolidate the two installations in Anchorage, reduce infrastructure, and create an active-duty and reserve-component association. Elmendorf has room and will not need to expand, and the Anchorage airport will now have land for later expansion, he said.
The 176th provides military airlift and rescue throughout Alaska when civilian agencies cannot manage the rescue due to lack of specialized equipment or expertise. The wing averages about 100 rescue missions a year, ranging from ejected pilots to searching for overdue aircraft or recovering stranded mountain climbers.
Kulis also houses a rescue coordination center, which has Alaska National Guardsmen performing a traditionally active-duty mission.
In one of their more high-profile rescues, Guard members rescued 23 people stranded at sea in July 2006 when the Japanese cargo ship Cougar Ace, carrying about 5,000 automobiles rolled onto its side.
The Alaska National Guard’s rescue coordination center assisted the Coast Guard with the rescue mission. The Alaska Air National Guard dispatched two HH-60 Pavehawks, two HC-130s, one C-130 Hercules and about a dozen pararescuemen.
The rescue garnered national attention and was awarded the Jolly Green Rescue Mission of the Year, which recognizes the Air Force’s most outstanding rescue missions. The unit was called in because the Coast Guard could not get there without refueling.
“We’ve have unique hardware and unique expertise that is found nowhere else in Alaska,” Foster said.
The base is also home to an air surveillance squadron, which performs an active-duty mission assumed by the Guard.
When combining the move, transformation and ongoing missions with operational deployments and humanitarian aid missions around the world, Foster likens his task to rebuilding an airplane while it is still in flight.
“There is a war on. We have all of the normal things that we need to do, plus we’re fighting, plus we’re transforming into a new missions and to a new location,” he said.
The former rescue helicopter pilot says his wing is up to the task, but concedes there will be some anxious moments.
“If anybody can pull it off, we can. That doesn’t mean that it’s not hard,” Foster said. “Our future does look bright, but it is turbulent. I believe we will do a very good job for the state and nation.”
By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service