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Tanker Scramble at MacDill Air Force Base

Tampa’s MacDill Air Force Base has long been home to a wing of 16 KC-135 Stratotankers — the Air Force’s aerial refueling workhorse since the 1950s. MacDill’s 6th Air Mobility Wing, home to the tankers, employs 2,651 airmen, 600 civilians and assorted other military personnel. But the Air Force is phasing out the Stratotankers starting in five years, and there’s no guarantee that MacDill will get a fleet of the KC-46A planes that will replace them.

The loss of the tanker fleet would take a significant chunk out of MacDill’s annual $3-billion economic impact on the area, and U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Democrat, is pushing for a bipartisan effort to help MacDill get a share of the KC-46A fleet. She’s working with U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, and Marco Rubio, a Republican, along with Congressmen Gus Bilirakis, Rich Nugent, Tom Rooney, Dennis Ross and Bill Young, all Republicans. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a Democrat, and County Commissioner Al Higginbotham, a Republican, accompanied Castor on a trip to Washington this summer to lobby Pentagon officials.

The newspaper Air Force Times called the scrum to land fleets of the new tanker planes “one of the most heated competitions in years.” More than 50 military bases nationwide want a tanker wing, including Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Eglin Air Force Base, Hurlburt Field, Patrick Air Force Base and Tyndall Air Force Base.

The Air Force plans initially to assign the tanker wings to three bases, with one base getting 36 KC-46As. A second base will get 12 and a third will get eight. Within the next 20 years, the Air Force plans to phase in a total of 179 KC-46s — an aircraft based on Boeing’s 767. A decision on which bases will get the tankers first is expected by the end of the year.