Collaboration saved Minnesota fighter wing, McKinley says

General Craig McKinley, chief of the National Guard Bureau, poses for a photo with former 148th Fighter Wing Commander and current Assistant Adjutant General - Air, Bridagadier Gen. Timothy Cossalter, and current 148th FW Commander, Colonel Frank Stokes at the annual Chamber of Commerce Dinner and Gala held on Oct. 21, 2010 at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center in Duluth, Minn.  Gen. McKinley was the keynote speaker for the event and spoke highly of 148th accomplishments and the communities' positive support of military members.    (U.S. Air Force photo by MSgt Ralph Kapustka)

General Craig McKinley, chief of the National Guard Bureau, poses for a photo with former 148th Fighter Wing Commander and current Assistant Adjutant General - Air, Bridagadier Gen. Timothy Cossalter, and current 148th FW Commander, Colonel Frank Stokes at the annual Chamber of Commerce Dinner and Gala held on Oct. 21, 2010 at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center in Duluth, Minn. Gen. McKinley was the keynote speaker for the event and spoke highly of 148th accomplishments and the communities' positive support of military members. (U.S. Air Force photo by MSgt Ralph Kapustka)

General Craig McKinley, chief of the National Guard Bureau, and former Tuskegee Airman and Pilot, Major Joe Gomer, pose for a photo together while at the annual Chamber of Commerce Dinner and Gala held on Oct. 21, 2010 at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center in Duluth, Minn.  Gen. McKinley was the keynote speaker for the event and spoke highly of 148th accomplishments, and the communities' positive support of military members.  He also recognized Maj. Joseph Gomer, a Duluth resident in attendance who served as a fighter pilot with World War II's famed Tuskegee Airmen.    (U.S. Air Force photo by MSgt Ralph Kapustka)

General Craig McKinley, chief of the National Guard Bureau, and former Tuskegee Airman and Pilot, Major Joe Gomer, pose for a photo together while at the annual Chamber of Commerce Dinner and Gala held on Oct. 21, 2010 at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center in Duluth, Minn. Gen. McKinley was the keynote speaker for the event and spoke highly of 148th accomplishments, and the communities' positive support of military members. He also recognized Maj. Joseph Gomer, a Duluth resident in attendance who served as a fighter pilot with World War II's famed Tuskegee Airmen. (U.S. Air Force photo by MSgt Ralph Kapustka)

Technical Sergeant Julie Ault and Technical Sergeant Joel Patterson post the colors at the start of the annual Chamber of Commerce Dinner and Gala held on Oct. 21, 2010 at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center in Duluth, Minn.  The event featured General Craig McKinley, chief of the National Guard Bureau, as the keynote speaker.  He spoke highly of 148th Fighter Wings accomplishments and the communities' positive support of military members.    (U.S. Air Force photo by SSgt Donald Acton)

Technical Sergeant Julie Ault and Technical Sergeant Joel Patterson post the colors at the start of the annual Chamber of Commerce Dinner and Gala held on Oct. 21, 2010 at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center in Duluth, Minn. The event featured General Craig McKinley, chief of the National Guard Bureau, as the keynote speaker. He spoke highly of 148th Fighter Wings accomplishments and the communities' positive support of military members. (U.S. Air Force photo by SSgt Donald Acton)

General Craig McKinley, chief of the National Guard Bureau, speaks at the annual Chamber of Commerce Dinner and Gala held on Oct. 21, 2010 at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center in Duluth, Minn.  Gen. McKinley was the keynote speaker for the event where he spoke highly of 148th accomplishments and the communities' positive support of military members.    (U.S. Air Force photo by SSgt Donald Acton)

General Craig McKinley, chief of the National Guard Bureau, speaks at the annual Chamber of Commerce Dinner and Gala held on Oct. 21, 2010 at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center in Duluth, Minn. Gen. McKinley was the keynote speaker for the event where he spoke highly of 148th accomplishments and the communities' positive support of military members. (U.S. Air Force photo by SSgt Donald Acton)

DULUTH, Minn. -- Collaboration between this city and the Minnesota Air National Guard saved the 148th Fighter Wing from closure and will help it grow in the future, the chief of the National Guard Bureau said today.

"You don't see many chambers who recognize their local military," Air Force Gen. Craig R. McKinley told about 1,000 business and civic leaders at the 140th anniversary of the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce. "Thanks for taking care of the (servicemen and women) that make Duluth a rich community."

The wing was put on DoD's Base Realignment and Closure list in 2005, but Duluth officials lobbied to save it.

As a result, the unit was allowed to keep its older F-16 Fighting Falcons.

Earlier this year, the unit received 20 F-16CJ Block 50 aircraft from the 22nd Fighter Squadron, based at Spangdahlem Air Force Base, Germany.

Now, city officials and wing leaders are working to create an active associate unit here.

Air Force Maj. Audra Flanagan, the public affairs officer for the 148th, told local media that if approved, the unit would need more personnel.

"It secures jobs. It secures our mission. It means we will continue to have federal dollars come pay people, pay for operations and maintenance and pay for construction," she said. "It brings a lot to the community."

She added that Duluth could see these new Airmen by 2014.

"(The unit is) ready and willing to bring back 200, 400, active duty Airmen to be part of the 148th Fighter Wing," said McKinley. "That's what this nation is going to need in the 21st century.

"That's the next step, which will lead to the conversion to F-35 (fighter jets) ... which will take this unit decades into the future."

McKinley also challenged the unit to be ready for the Joint Strike Fighter, which is being developed by Lockheed Martin to provide an air-to-ground role and replace the aging F-16 and A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft while complementing the F-22.

The Air Force announced in July that the Vermont Air National Guard is a candidate for an F-35 operations base.

"We just want to be ready if we do get the call," Flanagan said.

McKinley commended the unit for its commitment to service.

"From the time that the Air National Guard started flying out of the airport ... it has been a long-standing tradition of excellence," he said. "This unit didn't get its history by sitting idly by and watching time go by. It made its own history."

Finally, McKinley thanked the community.

"We know that when we come home ... you will be there for us," he said. "You will help our families when we are away, you will take care of our sons and daughters when they are in school, so that we can devote our time, our energy and our life to defending the nation that we all love so much."

Don Ness, the mayor of Duluth, said the National Guard is an important presence in his city.

"We in Duluth are rightfully proud of our veterans and servicemen and women, and we are particularly proud of the ... award-winning 148th Fighter Wing," he said. "Many of you in this room, and the businesses and organizations that you work for have made strong commitments to supporting our troops."