Ten Years After Tankers Return, Key Field is Thriving

  • Published
  • By Maj. Dusty Culpepper
  • 186th Air Refueling Wing

2005 was a grim year in the history of the 186th Air Refueling Wing.  

Key Field Air National Guard base in Meridian, Mississippi, had just found itself on the chopping block of the 2005 DOD-Base Closure and Realignment Report (BRAC) to the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission.  The recommendation from the report was to realign Key Field by distributing the eight KC-135R Stratotanker aircraft between the 128th ARW in General Mitchell Air Guard Station, Wisconsin, the 134th ARW, McGhee-Tyson Airport Air Guard Station, Tennessee, and the 101st ARW, Bangor International Airport Air Guard Station, Maine.  

The moves were projected to have a reduction of up to 339 jobs, 142 of those civilian jobs, and after an initial one-time cost of almost $11M, the projected time to recoup that money was 13 years.  The net savings over a 20-year period was expected to be $2.5M annually.  

At the time, those locations ranked higher in military value for the tanker mission than the 186th ARW, according to the report.  

The ruling might not have been the knockout punch for Key Field, but it was a lethal blow that had the base on the ropes.   

In 2005, Maj. Gen. (retired) Mike Nabors was about to step into the Air Operations Officer position in the Operations Group. He said that it was not surprising to see Key Field on the BRAC list, that the base routinely found itself there since the early-1990s.  But the strong Mississippi congressional delegation, mainly Congressman G.V. “Sonny” Montgomery would always protect their hometown.  

“Back in 1995, (Congressman) Sonny Montgomery basically walked into the (BRAC Committee) meeting and took a pencil and drew a line through Meridian and that was it,” Nabors recalled. 

“We didn’t have to worry anymore.”

But by the time 2005 came around, Congress had changed, and the power dynamics were different, Nabors said. Congressman Montgomery retired from public service in 1997.   

It was not until 2006, Nabors said, that there began to be a realization that there was no stopping the realignment of the tankers.    

Surprisingly, Nabors said that only a handful of people left due to the concern of base closure.  He said that to receive a follow up mission it was critical to maintain staffing for the base.  It was the belief of the people who stayed throughout the process that they never gave up hope for the future that kept the base afloat. 

“It was a remarkable group of people that were here at the right time and chose to stay and continue the fight every single day…who wouldn’t quit, which is in my opinion the reason Key Field is here today.”

One by one, beginning in 2007, the tankers began to leave Key Field. Only the RC-26, a Mississippi National Guard intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft that assisted local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies in counterdrug efforts remained as the lone flying mission. 

In August 2007, Nabors said that state leadership came to Key Field with an opportunity that the U.S. Air Force did not want, the MC-12 Project Liberty mission.  

Project Liberty was a newly developed ISR mission using the MC-12 aircraft, a military version of the Super King Air 350ER, that was a manned ISR platform being sent to the Middle East for the War on Terror.  According to Nabors, the active-duty Air Force did not feel like it could receive the aircraft, train the crews, and get into the theater in a timely manner.  Though it was a temporary assignment, it was an opportunity Key Field leadership did not want to pass up.  

At the time, there was no other flying mission on the table for the 186th. 

Nabors said that immediately after accepting the MC-12 mission, they sent personnel to get qualified. In less than 90 days, the mission was stood up and flew its first combat sortie in June 2009.  It was the fastest fielded weapons system implementation since the P-51 Mustang aircraft.  

From 2009 until 2012 when the mission ended, Key Field trained over 1,200 individuals from around the nation, many of whom immediately deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan in support of the War on Terror. This mission was re-assigned to Beale Air Force Base in 2012.  

Nabors said that had the MC-12 project been unsuccessful, Key Field may have been closed for good. 

In 2012, the Air Force appropriated four Italian-made C-27J Spartans to the 186th, an airframe that was being retired in 2012 by the Air Force after a very short service life.  Key Field was selected to be a future schoolhouse for the C-27J because of its success standing up the MC-12 mission.  The schoolhouse never transpired because of the short service life of the aircraft. 

During this time, many of the aircrews were simultaneously qualified to fly three different aircraft, a feat that is unheard of in an Air Force or Air National Guard wing. 

In April of 2011, a new homeland defense and Defense Support for Civil Authority (DSCA) mission to support the active-duty Air Force also surfaced at Key Field.  

The 286th Air Operations Group (AOG) was stood up whose mission supported two numbered Air Force active-duty bases, 1st Air Force at Tyndall Air Force Base, and 9th Air Force at Shaw Air Force Base. The new missions were in response to the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina and allowed for 24-hour operations to be conducted in response to another homeland security threat or natural disaster. 

The new AOG not only brought a new mission and capabilities to Key Field, but it also acted as a placeholder for the jobs lost when the tankers left.  

In the spring of 2012, the door was beginning to open to getting the tankers back to Key Field after advocacy by Key Field, Mississippi National Guard leadership, the local community, and the Mississippi congressional delegation, according to Nabors. 

“General (William) Freeman, who was the adjutant general at the time for Mississippi, came to us to say, you can have the MC-12 back or the tankers back,” Nabors remarked.  

Ultimately, aerial refueling was going to be more of an enduring mission, he said. At the time, the Air Force was moving to unmanned ISR platforms, which would again mean the MC-12 would have a short life expectancy.  

In early 2013, National Guard Bureau decided to send eight KC-135 tankers back to Key Field, where almost 80 years prior Fred and Al Key pioneered aerial refueling at the same location. 

2023 marks ten years since the return of the first KC-135 Stratotanker, and the 186th ARW is not only surviving, but thriving.  

Col. Cynthia Smith, wing commander of the 186th boasted that over the past year, the tankers flew over 3,200 hours and offloaded more than 11.8 million pounds of fuel, while deploying to areas across the globe supporting the nation’s security.

Also over the past year, Key Field has been allocated $20M in Mississippi state funds for base upgrades.  Those funds are appropriated for the construction of a new crash fire rescue station (CFRS) as well as conversion of the current CFRS to a deployment processing center.   

In 2023, it was announced that Key Field was chosen once again to house a KC-135 simulator, which will bring pilots from all over the U.S. to receive required annual training.  

“Key Field has twice been nominated for the prestigious ‘Collier Award’, second only to the International Space Station, and received the first-ever ‘outstanding’ rating among all refueling units,” Smith said. 

The 286th AOG, now renamed the 186th AOG, who was on shaky ground itself in 2012, has cemented its relationship with Air Forces Northern (AFNORTH/1st Air Force). In October 2018, when Hurricane Michael hit Tyndall as a Category 5 Hurricane, the 186th AOG was able to run distributed operations seamlessly from Key Field to keep the mission running as their home base was taking a direct hit. The AOG also ran evening and night operations for the federal COVID response from Key Field in 2022.  

Most importantly, Key Field has postured itself to receive the new Boeing KC-46 Pegasus when the Air Force begins the selection process for future KC-46 locations.

Currently, the 157th ARW at Pease Air National Guard Base, New Hampshire. is the only ANG base where the new tanker resides. 

For over 60 years, the KC-135 has been the backbone of aerial refueling for the Air Force, and while it has gone through many life-cycle upgrades to improve reliability, it is still an aging airframe. 

By receiving the KC-46, the wing would solidify a mission for years to come.