By Ed Runyan
When airport officials are asked about the future of the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport, they frequently cite the interconnectedness between the airport and the Youngstown Air Reserve Station and its Air Force 910th Airlift Wing.
Both use many of the same runways, taxiways and the Federal Aviation Administration tower.
The way some say it is: “Without the airport, there would be no air base.”
In order to test that theory, The Vindicator asked the present and past commander of the 910th Airlift Wing and others.
One said the reverse is also true: “Without the air reserve station, there would be no airport.”
The discussion fleshed out truths about the symbiotic relationship between the airport and reserve station, which Col. Dan Sarachene, 910th Airlft Wing commander, likened to that of conjoined twins.
The airport was cruising along for more than a decade with Allegiant Air bumping up passenger totals year after year. Two years ago, the Western Reserve Port Authority, which runs the airport, was also experimenting with daily commercial service to Chicago.
That ambitious project dissolved in controversy and legal action between the airport and Aerodynamics Inc., the airline that provided the flights.
Allegiant flights ended early this year because of competition from other low-cost carriers operating in the Cleveland-Pittsburgh-Akron market.
Now, it seems the air reserve station “twin” is getting most of the positive attention.
The Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber-led Eastern Ohio Military Affairs Commission has been working to preserve the reserve station’s military mission. That has coincided with millions of dollars being promised for reserve-station upgrades. It also stands to benefit if Camp Ravenna is awarded a massive missile defense project.
Sarachene, commander since February 2017, says the reserve station relies on the airport to carry out its military mission in many ways, such as use of airport runways, taxiways, security fencing around the complex, and the airport’s infrared lighting capabilities.
The reserve station leases and uses a 3,500 “assault-strip” runway from the airport that is being proposed for widening by the military.
Another asset is the FAA tower used by commercial and military aircraft that depends on sufficient air traffic to remain viable and open.
When asked how reliant the 910th is on the airport’s continued operation, Sarachene said he’s not inclined to “speculate on a bunch of what-ifs,” but if the airport were to shut down, the Air Force would have to take over operation of the airport runways and taxiways or discontinue the reserve station’s flying mission.
“I can tell you that to maintain a flying mission here in the Air Force Reserve, we would need to have an operational runway and functional taxiways,” Sarachene said. “With no runway, with no means to operate a runway, there could not be a flying mission for the 910th.”
Atty. Vito Abruzzino, head of the military affairs commission, says that without aircraft, the air reserve station would be a likely target for closure by the military.
“The Department of the Air Force has been asking for a BRAC [Base Realignment and Closure] round [reduction in bases and reserve stations] for 10 straight years, and now, all of a sudden, you’re going to tell them if you want to keep this air reserve station here, you’re going to have to purchase and take over all of the infrastructure at the airport – the runway and taxiways? Probably what you would hear them say is ‘No, thanks,’” Abruzzino said.
There are air reserve stations with no FAA tower, but having one improves safety for the reservists and their aircraft, Sarachene said.
If the airport lost FAA Airport Improvement Program funding and could no longer make annual upgrades as it does now, it could affect the reserve station. But the colonel said he would not speculate as to how.
One of the biggest improvements in recent years with AIP funding was a new perimeter fence. Proper fencing is a great asset to the reserve station because it protects the station, which has a value of about $1 billion, the colonel said.
A more recent project carried out with AIP funding was a change to an important part of the airport’s taxiway. Sarachene said the realignment was also a safety upgrade for the reserve station’s mission.
James Dignan, 910th Airlift Wing commander before Sarachene and now president and CEO of the Regional Chamber, said he doesn’t know what effect a reduction in AIP funding would have, either, but he believes closure of the airport would eventually lead to the closure of the reserve station, which employs about 1,800 people and has an annual payroll of $50.2 million.
“I would venture to guess ... the Air Force Reserve is not going to invest to run that runway and that operation. They would just pick everything up and move it.”
“Right now, even when Allegiant was there, the majority of [the flights] ... are military aircraft. So the military is driving the numbers that currently exist,” Dignan said, adding he believes the FAA will make decisions about funding the airport based on “how many [aircraft] approaches, how many arrivals, departures.”
According to the FAA, in 2017, there were 8,580 military flights and 17,606 nonmilitary flights at Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport.
That included 615 flights from Allegiant, the airport’s only commercial carrier that year; 1,630 from smaller commercial aircraft referred to as air taxis; and 10,722 flights involving general-aviation aircraft, meaning aircraft used by private individuals or companies.
So while the commercial service Allegiant provided resulted in 33,479 passengers flying out of the airport in 2017 (and 49,877 in 2016), it accounted for less than 3 percent of the airport’s 2017 flights.
The 910th Airlift Wing did see a reduction in C-130 Hercules aircraft deployed there from 12 to eight in 2013. The number of personnel at the 910th also fell about that time — from 1,816 in 2013 to 1,677 in 2018. The total number of personnel at Youngstown Air Reserve Station, including the 910th and Marine Corps/Navy Reserve personnel, dropped from 2,027 in 2013 to 1,823 in 2018.
Mike Mooney, a partner in Volaire Aviation Consulting, the airport’s commercial-airline consultant, said he expects the airport to continue to operate regardless of whether it has service from commercial airlines such as Allegiant.
“The airport is not going to go away,” he said, citing the presence of corporate planes and charter flights tied to Youngstown State University, such as for sporting events.
Because of the smaller population in the Mahoning Valley than some other places, the Vienna facility is attractive for military aircraft from bases around the country to practice maneuvers that would be more difficult in more congested airspace, said Bob Barko Jr., 910th Airlift Wing superintendent of public affairs.
“One of the amazing benefits of this airfield is we can land a C-5 Galaxy, which is the Air Force’s largest strategic air lifter. It will hold six Greyhound buses,” Barko said.
The military widening of the reserve station’s assault-strip runway will cost about $9 million.
It’s a big financial investment by the Air Force Reserve Command, Barko said.
“The Air Force is basically putting their money where their mouth is and saying this area, this air space, this base is somewhere we want to invest money,” Barko said.
An investment the military made long ago is the creation of the reserve station fire department.
Abruzzino says he believes the airport couldn’t operate without it because the airport would be hard-pressed to create its own fire department or for a local fire department to provide the type of aircraft rescue and firefighting provided by the reserve station fire department that the FAA requires.
The reserve station fire department has two doors – one to respond to emergencies involving aircraft and one to respond to fires and other emergencies on the reserve station and in the community.
The fire department even has capabilities most community fire departments don’t have, such as the ability to handle hazardous-material spills and deploy foams used to extinguish flammable liquids fires, Barko said. Reserve-station firefighters respond regularly to fires and accidents throughout the Mahoning Valley.
Dignan says because the military, other federal agencies, local businesses and others count on the airport, it’s important the community do what it can to preserve and enhance all the airport’s assets – the FAA tower, FAA funding, the runways, the reserve station and commercial air service.
“There’s a lot of importance, not just to our small region, but to others that count on this facility to remain intact,” he said. “Should any little piece of that Jenga puzzle come out, whether it’s scheduled flights or contract flights or business jets or private or military, it’s going to cause complications in the overall solvency and viability of the continuing air operations here.”