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Fairchild Meeting Comes at an Odd Time

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What was to have been a rather routine open house in Spokane Thursday night gained a little bit of sex appeal, thanks to a surprise earlier in the day.

The Air Force had scheduled the meeting to allow the public to comment on issues related to stationing a new group of air refueling tankers at Fairchild Air Force Base. But news broke around lunchtime that the decision about the tankers’ new home had already been made.

Leading up to yesterday’s meeting, Spokane community leaders believed Fairchild was one of five finalists to house the new generation of tankers, known as the KC-46A. It’s likely to be the successor to the KC-135 mid-air refueling tanker that has long had a presence at Fairchild.

And then Todd Mielke, the CEO at Greater Spokane Incorporated, got some news. He learned that Air Force officials told Congressional leaders yesterday that some of the new tankers would be headed to New Jersey and some would be headed to California. The timing of the news, he thought, was odd.

“Especially considering that the hearing is an Air Force E-I-S scoping public open house to determine the feasibility of locating the 46-A at Fairchild,” Mielke said.

He thought it sounded like the decision had already been made and that last night’s meeting was simply a formality.

He wasn’t alone. Washington U.S. Senator Patty Murray issued a statement earlier in the day blistering the Air Force for making a decision she said wasn’t consistent with the messages it was giving her about Fairchild being an optimal site for the new planes. She vowed to push the Air Force to explain publicly why it made this decision.

Senator Murray wasn’t at last night’s open house, but several dozen Spokane area residents were.

Mayor David Condon and at least four city council members, including Candace Mumm, were among them.

“What I wanted to find out here tonight was are they changing the flight patterns or expanding the air space at all, because that’s what really impacts people who live here is the noise and the flight paths," Mumm said. "And what I’m being assured, which made me feel good, is that the flight paths would not change and that the air space use would not change, no matter what.”

Mumm and the others were allowed to offer written comments to the issues the Air Force, including Major Sarah Bergkamp, was really seeking last night.

“Pretty much any area that touches on the environment," she said. "It can be things from having to do with plants and animals to cultural impacts to socioeconomic impacts.”

Bergkamp wasn’t there to shed new light on the political decision shared earlier in the day.  So this technically wasn’t the time for that. But the politics of it all was perhaps the main topic of conversation. Most came to voice their support for Fairchild. Some, like David Brookbank, had a different view.

“I’m opposed to this new tanker," he said. "In fact I’m opposed to Fairchild being touted as the economic foundation of Spokane’s existence.”

Todd Mielke, who perhaps knows as much about this as anyone in Spokane, is thinking through what this all means. Given this is a preliminary decision by the Air Force, he says there’s still time for events to break Spokane’s way. And if the KC-46A isn’t an option, something else might come along.

“All the parties agree that there is a very strategic role for Fairchild to play and that’s critical for the security of the nation," he said. "And so the idea is how do we position Fairchild to be the largest tanker base in the western United States, regardless of air frame. And so with every decision along this way, it opens up other opportunities, other alternatives, other options.”

Those may include continuing as a KC-135 tanker base as long as that plane is active.

The public can comment online for another two weeks on the issues related to basing the KC-46A tankers at Fairchild.