FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. – Fairchild Air Force Base on Thursday began to deploy its KC-135 air tanker planes, but officials at the base just west of Spokane would not say where they were being sent.
“We have deployed airmen,” base spokeswoman Capt. Denise Shorb said.
She declined to say how many of Fairchild’s more than 60 air tankers were leaving the base, or where they were going. However, some of the planes remained to refuel fighter jets now flying patrols over major U.S. cities.
The Boeing-built KC-135s are flying gas stations designed to refuel military planes in flight. The 92nd Air Refueling Wing at Fairchild is the largest tanker unit in the Air Force, Shorb said.
The Bush administration has ordered the Air Force to send a mix of aircraft to the Persian Gulf area, totaling between 100 and 130 planes, a senior defense official said Thursday. They include fighters and B-52 bombers and well as tanker aircraft to be positioned along an “air bridge” to refuel the combat planes.
Tankers from Fairchild have routinely been rotated to Saudi Arabia on missions in support of the “no-fly zones” over Iraq. They also supported military actions in the Bosnian conflict.
More than 550 Fairchild pilots and crew members participated in the Persian Gulf War.
A former Strategic Air Command bomber base, Fairchild became one of the nation’s largest refueling depots in 1993.
The Washington Air National Guard also bases 10 KC-135s at Fairchild.
Spokesman Sgt. Wes Walton said the Guard unit had not received deployment orders as of Thursday morning.
McChord Air Force Base near Tacoma had received no deployment orders, said Tech. Sgt. Colleen Roundtree.
“So far we haven’t heard anything,” Roundtree said. “We’re just waiting.”
Security remained tight at Fairchild, about 10 miles west of Spokane, with long lines of cars forming at the main gate. Armed security officers inspected cars and checked identifications of everyone trying to enter the base.
There are about 4,000 active duty military personnel at the base, with 5,500 dependents and 1,000 civilian contractors, spokesman Lt. David Faggard said.
Another 1,500 National Guard and Air Force Reserve personnel are attached to the base, he said.
Families of airmen deployed have not been given a return date.
“We are doing the mission that the president has ordered us to do, and we will do that until it’s time to come home,” Faggard said. “This is the kind of stuff we train for every day.”
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