- Associated Press - Saturday, May 31, 2014

SIOUX CITY, Iowa (AP) - Two fighter jets scream by overhead, then loop around and land at Sioux Gateway Airport.

As the pair of F-15s roll past on the runway, Lt. Col. Tyson Herbold and his crew run through a series of preflight checks prior to firing up the engines on one of the 185th Air Refueling Wing’s KC-135 tanker jets.

Arriving for a paint job at the 185th’s paint shop Tuesday, the F-15s were a high-speed blast from the past, a reminder of the days when F-16 fighter jets based at the 185th flew over Sioux City almost daily.

Just off that same runway, the Sioux City Journal reports (http://bit.ly/1lLrMYR ) Herbold sat in the cockpit of the base’s present - and future. With ongoing American military operations worldwide, the 185th will be in demand to carry fuel to aircraft around the globe.

Those big, bulky tankers resting at the 185th may not be as glamorous as the sleek fighting machines once housed here, but they represent something base personnel ultimately realized the fighters never could: security.

When Iowa National Guard leaders announced in September 2000 that the 185th would convert from fighters to tankers, it wasn’t the most popular decision, especially among pilots who would go from flying at extreme speeds to cruising in the slow lane.

But looking back, said commander Col. Brian Miller, one of those affected fighter pilots, it’s the best thing that could have happened.

“I took the announcement of going from fighters to heavies about as well as a 4-year-old when his candy is taken away,” Miller said. “But had we not converted when we did, there is a chance we wouldn’t even be open right now.”

The announcement disappointed many on the base, but many others welcomed the tankers. The fighters may have been leaving, but at least their jobs weren’t going with them, said Chief Master Sgt. David Miller, the current command chief who was equipment maintenance branch chief at the time.

“As long as the gates were going to stay open, we had the philosophy that we really didn’t care what we worked on,” he said. “Maintenance practices are still the same. Hydraulics are still hydraulics.”

The conversion meant the loss of about 20 full-time jobs, many of which Miller said have since been regained, bringing the total number of full- and part-time employees at the base to 956.

Some pilots left to continue flying fighters at other bases. Some retired rather than go through the conversion. Those who remained were retrained to fly the KC-135. Mechanics were trained how to fix and maintain a different aircraft. More than $40 million was spent on a new hangar and other modifications to accommodate the larger jets.

On Jan. 16, 2003, the 185th’s fighters took off for the last time, headed to their new home in New York. That same day, the first tanker landed, marking the beginning of a new mission.

Guard members and civilians alike haven’t looked back, despite a little uncertainty at the time.

Then-mayor Marty Dougherty said city officials had been given a heads up that the conversion was being considered.

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