186th Air Refueling Mission Returns

Meridian's Air National Guard Base is undergoing a major change. Tuesday one mission there ended, and another officially started. Many are hopeful that this change will ensure the viability of the base for many years to come.

It was two years ago when Major James Duncan flew the first C-27 J Aircraft to Key Field. He's also the pilot who flew the last of the aircraft away from the base Tuesday morning.

"It's somewhat bittersweet," says Duncan. "If we ever stop moving forward in life...you know. It's good. It's bad, but we're going on to bigger and better things."

Four C-27 J aircraft were brought to the Air Guard Base in Meridian after changes were made in 2005 during base realignment efforts. Those planes were used to transport cargo and personnel.

Prior to the 2005 action, the mission for the base was air refueling, which its members had done for 13 years. That mission is now being restored at Key Field.

"Bringing air refueling back to the Key Brothers who started it all, that's awesome!" says Major Duncan.

So far, two of the K-C 135 tankers that will be used for the mission have been brought to the base. By September base officials hope to have about 8 of the tankers, which they feel will help further secure the future of the base.

"I think it means longevity," says Colonel Franklin Chalk, who is the Commander for the 186th Refueling Wing. "The KC 135 is an old airplane. It's going to be in the inventory, hopefully, for another 15 to 20 years."

As for the Air Guard Base, it plays a significant role in the Meridian area. It's the third largest employer in Lauderdale County and each year its $50 million payroll has a major impact on the local economy.

Meanwhile, because of cuts in other areas at the base, officials there say that resuming the refueling mission will not necessarily lead to more jobs.

"It's pretty much a neutral affect," says Colonel Chalk. "We had the AOG here that was originally scheduled for 301 positions and that was cut down to about 140. So, it's pretty much a wash."

About 1,100 people currently work at the base; roughly 300 of those are full-time positions. The 186th initially started its refueling mission in 1992.

Meridian natives, Al and Fred Key, are credited with inventing modern air refueling in 1935. A celebration for the return of the refueling mission will be held on the base this Saturday at 2 p.m..