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Yeager chief: Loss of 130th ANG base could kill local air service

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Loss of the Air National Guard's 130th Airlift Wing operation at Charleston's Yeager Airport also could spell an end to commercial air service in West Virginia's capital city, airport Director Rick Atkinson told members of Yeager's governing board Wednesday.

The Air National Guard unit provides 24-hour fire and rescue service free of charge to the airport. Atkinson said it would cost the airport about $1.2 million annually to provide the same level of protection on its own.

By factoring the cost of that service alone into the airport's annual operating expenditures, landing fees at Yeager would nearly double, rising from the current rate of $3.67 per thousand pounds to $6.33 per thousand pounds to cover the added expense, Atkinson said.

"If we had a landing fee in the $6 to $7 range, there wouldn't be an airline flying here," Atkinson told board members.

Loss of free fire protection also would boost the passenger terminal's office and commercial space lease rate by more than $7 per square foot, Atkinson said.

Last month, airport board member Allen Tackett, the state's former National Guard adjutant general, asked Atkinson to present a financial analysis during the June board meeting on the effects the possible closure of the Charleston Air National Guard base would have on Yeager Airport.

Tackett is spearheading an effort to come up with the $7 million to $9 million needed to build a bridge across the Elk River to make possible a new, secure access road to the 130th Airlift Wing's headquarters building and the West Virginia National Guard headquarters complex.

The road would be public as it crosses through Coonskin Park from a new entrance provided by the bridge, planned for a site near the Mink Shoals exit of Interstate 79. However, the road would be gated and access-controlled as it entered National Guard property. Coonskin Drive, the existing road to the military complex and Coonskin Park, would be closed at the point where it reaches Air National Guard property.

Last year, funding for the bridge and access road was dropped from the federal defense budget.

During Base Realignment and Closure Commission hearings in 2005, the use of an uncontrolled public road -- Coonskin Drive -- as the main access route to 130th Airlift Wing was cited as a security deficiency, Tackett said. He said it is the only deficiency cited by BRACC that hasn't since been rectified.

With the Department of Defense now asking Congress for another round of BRACC hearings while also planning to reduce its inventory of C-130 Hercules transport planes -- the aircraft flown by the 130th Airlift Wing -- state military officials worry that the Air Guard unit might be targeted for closure again.

"Loss of this base would be devastating to West Virginia, not just this airport," Tackett said. With 370 full-time and 1,100 part-time employees, the 130th pumps $89 million annually into the state's economy, he said.

Tackett said the bridge funding issue "has been taken to the top levels of state government," and that he is confident Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin will come up with a plan to finance the span. "I think he will make a decision in the near future," he said.

In other military matters, Col. John Ryan, vice commander of the 130th, told board members that his Air National Guard unit is hosting a training exercise in July involving aircraft from five states and airports and drop zones in five West Virginia counties.

Operation Sentry Storm will involve A-10 Thunderbolt II ground-attack aircraft, RC-26 surveillance and reconnaissance planes, and C-5 Galaxy and C-130 transport aircraft.

Airports in Mingo and Logan counties, in addition to Yeager and Beckley's Raleigh County Memorial Airport will be involved in the exercise, which will involve, among other things, low-altitude navigation and terrain-masking training.

Ryan said West Virginia is one of the few states in the nation with virtually all its airspace designated as open for low-altitude military flight training, making possible training runs as low as 300 feet above ground level in rural areas.

The state's abundance of challenging low-level flying terrain, the new National Guard drop zone at Fola, along the Clay-Nicholas border, and the development of an unpaved "assault" landing strip now underway at a reclaimed surface mine will all help "bring more people to West Virginia for training," Ryan said.

Also Thursday:

• R. Edison Hill was re-elected chairman of Yeager's governing board and Norman W. "Trip" Shumate III, president of Charleston Newspapers, was tapped to fill the vice president's post formerly held by James E. Foster, who recently moved to Florida. H.B. Wehrle III was re-elected secretary-treasurer and Priscilla Haden was elected assistant secretary-treasurer.

Other board members, according to the airport's website, include Karen Haddad, Gregory Tucker, David Hill, Charles Jones, Hoppy Shores and Harold Carter.

• Former Charleston Gazette design editor Bob Lynn presented the board with a series of sketches he made of the airport as it appeared while under construction in the late 1940s. At that time, Lynn was a student at Charleston's Lincoln Junior High School.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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