City Council tours with the Alabama Air National Guard, 117th Air Refueling Wing

Col. Robert S. Grant speaking to Councilor Darrell O’Quinn, Photo by Max Rykov

By Cody Owens

“Make yourself at home, gentleman,” says Colonel Robert S. Grant, the Commander of the 117th Air Refueling Wing with the Alabama Air National Guard (AANG). Birmingham City Councilor Darrell O’Quinn was ladling some chicken noodle soup out of a Crock-Pot and Col. Grant wanted to make sure his guests knew they could have seconds if they wished.

The tour of the Sumpter Smith Air National Guard Base was part of a sustained effort to build relationships between the city officials and the AANG. Located at the northern end of the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport, the 209 acre base employs 1100 people, and is responsible for roughly $109 million in annual economic impact throughout Birmingham and the surrounding area. It is one of only 19 air refueling bases in the United States.

Grant jokes, “One of the main reasons Birmingham is able to call itself an international airport is because of the missions we fly out of here.” Because the base boasts a two-mile runway, the 117th is able to provide support (i.e. fuel, cargo, personnel transport) in an area covering 800 nautical miles from the base — a huge swath of the country and Central America. During an unveiling of the updated facility several years ago, the AANG ran a mission to Colombia and back to show state and local officials the capabilities allowed by having such a long runway.

The runway is, by all accounts, a major selling point for the base, Grant says. In 1937, the 106th Observation Squadron, commanded by Col. Sumpter Smith, moved to the current location. The oldest structure on the base is the large hangar that can house a KC-135, which the 117th currently operates nine of, and, at any given time, they can be flying missions all over the world.

The KC-135 was originally produced in 1955 and continued to 1964. With a fleet that is slated for retirement in 2040, Grant says it is important to make upgrades to the current infrastructure at the base so that Sumpter Smith will continue to be a viable asset for the United States Air Force while they bring new planes into the fleet. Thursday’s discussion was aimed at maintaining a dialogue with city officials to make sure they are up to speed on the importance of maintaining a state-of-the-art facility.

The many roles of the base

O’Quinn asked about the role that the 117th plays during times of crisis, such as a hurricane or after Sept. 11, 2001. Grant said it was an unbelievable period after the towers fell; people were deployed from the base, personnel were sleeping anywhere they could so they could wake up and get back in the air. “For two and a half weeks we had birds in the air,” Grant says. “When we get the call, we are ready.” There is a KC-135 and a crew that is ready to go at all times, based at Sumpter Smith.

When a disaster such as Hurricane Katrina happens, hundreds of evacuees are flown into the base and shuttled off to area hospitals. Also, Grant explains, to help in the global war against terrorist organizations, an active intelligence squadron is housed at the facility.

“They do real time interpretation UAV activity that goes on in the global war on terrorism. That’s about as much detail as I’m able to go into in this environment. But that war is being fought right here on this base in real time,” Grant says.

In the 1960s, the base played a key role in the failed CIA plot to overthrow Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba. “The reason they came to us is we were the last unit to fly the B-26…They took a group of maintainers and pilots, took some planes from the boneyard and flew them down to Guatemala where they trained the Cuban rebels. This went on for several months,” Grant says. During the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, two planes were shot down, one was downed in the ocean and never recovered. Another was shot down and landed in a cane field. Both pilots were shot and killed.”

Each year the 117th hosts a ceremony to remember those that were lost on the mission.

What’s next?

“What can the city do to make sure you all have all the tools you need to succeed?” O’Quinn asked as the meeting was winding to a close.

According to Grant, the most pressing need is to make sure the base is selected as one of the locations for a KC-135 flight simulator. The location has already been selected on the base and the Birmingham Business Alliance has provided a promissory note for $5.6 million in order to secure the flight simulator, a huge plus when trying to show local and regional support behind the AANG. Grant points to this as proof that the entire region benefits from the 117th being housed as Sumpter Smith.

Another future goal would be to build a ramp expansion in order to exploit wasted space and connect existing aircraft parking areas into one joint use area. Grant says this is their most crucial goal. Completing this will increase the value of the base from a military operation standpoint because it will be able to house larger aircrafts. The local cost of that is estimated to be $14 million.

“As chair of the Transportation Committee, I think my definition of transportation may be broader than most,” O’Quinn said, cracking a smile. “But I want to let you all know that I am going to encourage my colleagues and city officials to pay attention to what it is you do here and how valuable it is for the city…I’m going to make sure this is an ongoing conversation.”

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