News Article - April 14, 2007

Base still has military purpose NAS: Base has military future  
  After nearly two years of watching the Willow Grove Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base march toward closure, supporters of the base and its units won a major victory Friday. In a dramatic turnaround, the U.S. Air Force said it will help turn the Willow Grove Naval Air Station Joint Reserve into a state-run facility with military and civilian security agencies supporting missions overseas and at home.

   The Air Force agreed to a state request that will have the military branch take control of land the Navy is leaving in 2011, lease it and ultimately transfer it to Pennsylvania, U.S. Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne said in a letter released Friday. That request for nearly 900 acres is a much larger request than the 17 acres the Air Force said it wanted at the base last spring.

   “With its key strategic location, excellent airfield, and existing facilities, it was vitally important that Willow Grove be maintained to support national defense, homeland security, emergency preparedness and other government missions,” Gov. Ed Rendell said in a news release. Rendell credited Congressman John Murtha with spearheading the effort. Murtha, a retired Marine colonel, represents a district in western Pennsylvania and is the chairman of the powerful House subcommittee that allocates defense dollars. The Navy, which would have made millions from the sale of that land, still must officially sign off to the deal.

   The creation of an interagency program at the base likely will mean 2,500 to 3,500 full- and part-time military personnel stationed at the base, said Maj. General Jessica Wright, the state's top National Guard official. That would include the 111th Fighter Wing and the 56th Stryker Brigade, now based in Philadelphia. Each unit has about 1,000 members.

   When the Pentagon's Base Realignment and Closing Commission report was released in May 2005, the base had about 1,570 full-time employees and 4,755 part-timers. At least 12 other governmental agencies have expressed interest in locating facilities on the base, Wright said. Their participation would help turn it into a regional security hub.

   Friday's announcement won't mean commercial flights at the base, but Wright said it could mean a small number of flights supporting military operations and defense contractors. Michael McGee is Horsham's township manager and serves as the executive director of the Horsham Land Reuse Authority, which is responsible for sketching out a vision for how the land would be used. He questioned how the state could cover the costs of the 8,000-foot runway on the base without allowing civilian air traffic.

   “I'm told it costs $12 million a year to keep the runway open. Why would you keep the runway open with no airplanes?” McGee asked. Wright said the overall level of air traffic coming in and out of the base would not increase, adding that “the civilian operations will be limited to uses that are compatible with the primary use of the airport for military operations.” “There will be absolutely no scheduled passenger or cargo operations at Willow Grove,” she said.

   Residents who have fought hard to keep the Willow Grove landing strip from becoming a backup for Philadelphia International Airport were skeptical. John Miller, president of the group Residents Against a Civilian Airport, said the cost of keeping the airstrip open would virtually require allowing commercial flights.

   “The only way to pay for this is with more and more flights - that's unacceptable. It's unfair to anyone who lives in Horsham,” he said. The reversal also throws into question plans of local officials to develop a plan to reuse base land after the military leaves.

   McGee said he was shocked and confused by what he called “an effort to have local input removed from the process.” The Air Force's new request circumvented the base-closure process, he said. “Whatever it turned out to be, this was a huge opportunity for the township that's just been yanked out from under our feet, and I think most people who live in the township will be upset about it,” Miller said.

   Col. Paul Comtois, head of the 111th Fighter Wing based at Willow Grove, said Friday's announcement is a great thing, but said “it doesn't end the fight for us.” The fighter wing is still scheduled to lose its A10 “Warthogs” planes by 2010, but state officials are now saying they think other airplanes can be found to replace them. The 913th Airlift Wing, also stationed at the base, is scheduled to be deactivated later this year. Aircraft have not yet been identified to be stationed at the base, but Wright said she expects that to change. The major roadblock to securing new aircraft had been the expectation that the base would lose its runway. Friday's announcement appears to put the runway on more solid footing and may remove that hurdle, she said.

Source - Courier Times