The Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station occupies about 1,000 acres of land adjacent to the city’s commercial airport, and the first thing to know is this: it is not a tourist destination. The base features all the trappings of a serious element of the U.S. Air Force because that’s what it is, and a guard at the entry gate will make that clear to anyone wandering in, in search of photos or airplanes. While it will host the "Thunder of Niagara" air show on June 19 and 20, which features the Air Force’s "Blue Angels" demonstration flying team, it is strictly business, serious business, here.
Anyone who has ever been on a U.S. military base will note the grid pattern of the streets, the gym, the churches, the PX for supplies, and signage on all buildings. Getting lost is an embarrassment on a military base.
It is the home of the 914th Air Refueling Wing, which these days means operation of planes filled with fuel and used to refuel other planes, notably fighter planes, while both are airborne and at high altitude. The 914th traces its lineage to World War II cargo planes which flew "over the hump" of the Himalayan Mountains in the China-India-Burma campaigns. Reactivated for the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, it served in Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield in the 1990s, famously flying variants of the massive C-130 cargo plane. It now flies the newer, KC-135 Stratotankers, and a place on a lawn holding three restored "legacy planes" is marked with a spot for a decommissioned C-130.
The Air Station was once Bell Aerospace, where Chuck Yeager tested the Bell X-1A experimental plane before he used it to break the sound barrier. The place has plenty of history, but remains future-forward, and includes The 107th Attack Wing and squadrons of the 101st Cavalry of the New York Air National Guard,
About 3,000 people – federal employees, civilian reservists and contractors -- work at the base, Senior Master Sgt. Kevin Nichols said, making it Niagara County’s largest employer, "ahead of the casino." He counted the missions of the base – aerial refueling, strategic cargo airlift that can jam 82,000 pounds of anything into a plane, and an air medical evacuation squadron with "a flying ambulance."
The majority of those on the job are local. While many arrive in planes from all over the country, the workforce is largely from Niagara and Erie Counties.
"There’s not a lot of cycling in and out," Nichols said of the traditional picture of service personnel regularly transferring to various bases.
Somehow that makes the Air Station both a hometown employer and a part of a network that stretches around the world and into space.
Ed Adamczyk is a historian and contributing writer for the Niagara Gazette and Forever Young.