For Pittsburgh’s Air Force Reserve Station, the C-17 is much more than just a new aircraft.
“It keeps the base open,” said Bryan Branby, Program Integration Office Chief for the 911th Airlift Wing. “It’s a mission that will go into the next 20 to 30 years, and it’s an investment in the infrastructure on base – so that alone is a boost.”
Shortly after Pittsburgh International Airport lost its hub status, its military neighbor across the airfield was looking at a similar fate. In 2005, the reserve station found itself on a list of Air Force bases threatened for closure in a Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) report.
The report said the 911th, which at the time hosted eight C-130 Hercules aircraft, lacked room for growth to accommodate additional aircraft. And while ultimately the BRAC Commission decided to keep the base open, the future of the airlift wing was not guaranteed.
Following several years of uncertainty for the 911th, Congress awarded funding to upgrade the base in 2016 to handle C-17 Globemaster III aircraft. A more modern and multifunctional aircraft in comparison to the C-130, the C-17 can fly greater distances and handle payloads as large as 85 tons.
Also, the Globemaster can land on short and narrow runways, making it an ideal aircraft for a variety of missions ranging from airlifts to hauling large equipment and supplies, and even transporting ambulatory patients.
In 2018, the airlift wing relocated its C-130 fleet in preparation for the arrival of the newer, larger aircraft. And this month, the 911th welcomed the first three of eight C-17 aircraft to be positioned on base, securing the airlift’s future for years to come.
The transition from C-130 to C-17 aircraft will change the 911th’s function. Crews will be deployed more frequently due to the aircraft’s versatility and ability to fly on long-haul missions, according to Branby, who is leading the conversion program.
“Pittsburgh now has a higher profile in the Air Force,” said Branby. “Our airplanes are flying in the system every single day. Before, the majority of the time our planes were here, but now they will be flying all over the world – in Europe, Africa, South America – in constant rotation.”
Col. Greg Buchanan, 911th Operations Group Commander, noted that the C-17’s ability to be modified for different needs makes it the “backbone” of air mobility.
“It’s truly a transcontinental aircraft,” said Buchanan. “We have crews all over the world right now and I think everyone here is excited that we are operating a real-world, global mission directly from Pittsburgh.”
According to a 2018 economic impact study conducted by the University of Pittsburgh, the C-17 conversion is an approximately $110 million project that will add 192 permanent military and civilian jobs to the base.
Along with infrastructure upgrades that include construction of a larger hangar and pavement work, the process involves training for pilots, mechanics and other crews at the 911th. The transition has been an exciting challenge for the base, said Col. Cliff Waller, 911th Maintenance Group Commander.
“This is huge for us,” he added. “It’s totally different from what we had before, so the learning curve basically meant that we had to learn our trades all over again.”
The hangar is expected to be complete this October, as the remaining C-17s will arrive on base over the next few months. And while the conversion marks the end of an era, crews at the 911th are looking forward to their new mission.
“They are seeing new things, new places, and have the chance to do new missions,” said Branby. “It’s a different world and a different type of flying now. It’s bittersweet, but at the same time, it’s exciting and new.”
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