Plans to close 911th on hold
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WASHINGTON -- The 911th Airlift Wing at Pittsburgh International Airport is safe from the Pentagon's plan to close the base, at least for now.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has directed the Air Force to postpone all scheduled transfers and equipment retirements.
That's also good news for the airport's 171st Air Refueling Wing, which has been in jeopardy of losing its tankers along with 182 of its 1,467 personnel.
The 911th employs about 1,900 including reservists, trainees and civilians who operate and maintain C-130 transport planes.
Mr. Panetta directed the Air Force to suspend all scheduled transfers and equipment retirements until fiscal year 2013, because Congress hasn't provided the $1.4 billion needed to restructure the affected bases.
Mr. Panetta wrote in a June 22 letter to Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, chairman of the defense subcommittee, that money to carry out already-made plans, including the closing of the 911th, is unavailable without congressional action on the appropriations bills, hence the need for delay.
"These delays impact our military capability and introduce uncertainty in future missions and training schedules for the effected units," Mr. Panetta wrote in the letter. "And they will also delay the Department's ability to reach the level of budget reductions mandated in the 2011 Budget Control Act."
The Air Force had announced the decision to close the base in February as part of a plan to save $354 million by 2018.
Supporters of the 911th, including U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, maintained that this estimate was inaccurate and that the Air Force could save more money by retiring similar planes elsewhere.
Mr. Murphy said the Defense Department's decision reflected his efforts to expose flaws in the Air Force's recommendations.
"It's been tough to this point. When [Air Force Secretary Michael Donley] visited the base it was more along the lines of 'Look we've got to move forward on things,' but this letter means Secretary Panetta is acknowledging that we've got to put a hold on this," Mr. Murphy said.
"They recognized they need to put a hold on this, but we want them to recognize the value of reviewing it, not just waiting. They have to actually review it," he said.
Base officials believe a proper review could save the base for the long haul.
"We do have confidence that once they see the location and everything we have to offer in the Pittsburgh area they may make a different decision," said Master Sgt. Mark Winklosky, deputy chief of public affairs for the 911th.
In a statement Monday Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., said the delay is sensible.
"I'm pleased Secretary Panetta has recognized Congress' intent regarding excellent and cost-effective units like the 911th Airlift Wing and the 171st Air Refueling Ring. This is a victory for Pittsburgh and southwest Pennsylvania," Mr. Toomey said.
Reservists on base aren't ready to celebrate yet.
"We're just continuing day to day until they actually [say the base is safe], and then we can celebrate," Mr. Winklosky said.
First Published July 3, 2012 12:00 am