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Locals make pitch to keep fighter wing

By Carolina Amengual
The Daily News

Published November 16, 2003

CLEAR LAKE � Coastal waterways, petrochemical refineries, biotechnology companies and the Johnson Space Center are too vulnerable and too important to be defended from a distance, area residents say.

By early 2005, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission will make a recommendation to Congress to consolidate and close military bases around the country.

Reorganization plans have put residents and members of the military community on high alert, fearing that the Texas Air National Guard unit based at Ellington Field could be moved or reduced in size.

�There are some things that should transcend land greed and local politics, and keeping an adequate and immediate defense capability at Ellington Field is one of them,� said Kathryn Black Morrow, a historian who studied Ellington Field for her master�s thesis. �It will be tragically too late to realize this after we lose the ship channel, the refineries or Johnson Space Center and Mission Control. The 147th Fighter Wing at Ellington Field defends the entire Gulf Coast. We need its full capability, not just one or two planes.�

The 147th Fighter Wing flies F-16 jets. The base is staffed by 1,075 people � 400 of them full-time. About 700 are present at Ellington on a regular basis.

The unit�s overall impact to the local economy is $340 million, according to estimates by the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership. About 30 percent of that is spent in Galveston County.

Malcolm Browne, a member of the Ellington Field Task Force, warns that lobbying has already started to take the 147th Wing to other cities, mainly San Antonio.

Browne said elected officials and residents of the area are not pushing hard enough to keep the military unit home. �This is a project that has to be approached with energy right now,� Browne said. �We don�t have time to make it politically correct. It�s absolutely important to contact our politicians. There�s no time to waste.�

Col. Lanny McNeely, commander of the 147th Fighter Wing, said educating the public, as well as state and military leaders, about the contributions the unit makes to the community was crucial. �Many people are not aware of what we do here,� he said.

Besides defending the Gulf Coast region and sending members to Afghanistan and Iraq, missions undertaken by the 147th Wing include protecting dignitaries, helping law enforcement intercept drugs over land and water, working with the U.S. Coast Guard on rescues and identifying scattered debris after the Space Shuttle Columbia accident.

�The bottom line here is that if you don�t do any preparation, then you get what you get,� McNeely said about the Base Realignment and Closure Commission�s upcoming recommendation.

Besides questions about homeland security, there are concerns about what the removal of the fighter wing would do to Ellington Field.

The 147th Wing is a major tenant at the city-owned facility operated by the Houston Airport System. Without it, other tenants, such as NASA, Continental Express, the Texas Army National Guard and the U.S. Coast Guard, would have to pick up the tab for maintenance of the control tower, the runway and many other costs. �They pay less because it�s a shared cost,� McNeely said.

Despite the apprehension, Jim Reinhartsen, president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership, sees an opportunity to pitch the idea that the area needs a greater military presence � not less.

�I see this as a challenge, but it�s also a tremendous opportunity to expand the military presence at Ellington Field,� he said.

Expansion of operations could translate into increased security and upgraded aircraft.

It would also mean reservists and their families moving to the area, more people staying at hotels, eating at restaurants and spending at local shops, and more materials being purchased from local vendors.

�Once the facts are presented, the right decision will be made,� Reinhartsen said. �Once BRAC commissioners visit (the area) and know what it�s all about, they�ll come to the right conclusions. What people can do is contact members of Congress and state legislators and engage them in the process.�

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1917 � Opens as one of the largest aviation training fields in the nation.

1920 � Airfield closes.

1921 � Reopens for one year.

1922 � Airfield closes.

1923 � Reopens with 36th Division of the Air Services until
1927 when the squadron was relocated to the new Houston Municipal Airport.

1927 � Airfield closes. Most of base razed by fire.

1930 � Land leased for grazing.

1940 � Ellington once again becomes a full-scale training base.

1948 � Operated on a limited basis as an Air Force Reserve and Texas National Guard base.

1949 � Becomes a school for training radar navigators. Only postwar U.S. Air Force navigation training school.

1950 � Seven reserve units called to active duty during the Korean War.

1956 � The 111th Fighter Interceptor Group of the Texas Air National Guard moved to Ellington Air Force Base.

1960 � 147th Fighter interceptor Group moves to Ellington.

1962 � Manned Spacecraft Center (later called Johnson Space Center) bases operations at Ellington AFB.

1976 � 147th Fighter Interceptor Group designated by Air Force to phase down Ellington AFB.

1984 � Purchased by the city of Houston Department of Aviation as an auxiliary field.

2003 � Currently part of Homeland Security Defense System, Ellington Field serves as a base for corporate, commercial, cargo and private aviation operations for the Houston Airport System.

� Source: Kathryn Black Morrow