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U.S. military plane crashes in Kyrgyzstan; fate of crew unknown

KC-135 MANAGED AT WRIGHT-PATTERSON

The Air Force Life Cycle Management Center Tanker Directorate at Wright-Patterson manages the KC-135 Stratotanker program, according to Daryl Mayer, a base spokesman. The center oversees maintenance and modernization of the refueling tanker, the first of which joined the fleet in 1956 and was last produced in 1965. Air Force officials recently announced a modernization program for the aging plane to extend its service life.

The first four new Boeing KC-46 refueler tankers, which will replace the KC-135, are scheduled to join the fleet in 2018, according to Mayer. That program also is managed at Wright-Patterson.

The Air Mobility Command has a fleet of more than 400 KC-135 jets in the Air Force, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve that refuel U.S. military and allied aircraft.

— Barrie Barber, staff writer

An American military refueling plane carrying three crew members crashed Friday in the rugged mountains of Kyrgyzstan, the Central Asian nation where the U.S. operates an air base key to the war in Afghanistan.

There was no word on the fate of the crew of the KC-135 Stratotanker as darkness fell and the search for them was suspended for the night. Cargo planes do not have ejector seats. Officials at the U.S. base said they had no information yet on the cause of the crash.

The plane crashed at 2:55 p.m. near Chaldovar, a village 100 miles west of the U.S. Transit Center at Manas base outside the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek. Pieces of the plane, including its tail, were scattered across a grassy field bordered by mountains; the air was infused with the heavy stench of fuel.

The plane was on a refueling mission for Afghanistan war operations at the time of the crash, a U.S. defense official in Washington said, speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to discuss the details of an ongoing investigation.

The front section of the aircraft has not yet been found, Kyrgyz Emergencies Minister Kubatbek Boronov said. He added that searchers have not found the flight recorders from the plane, which was badly burned in the crash.

The search for the crew will resume this morning, and the crash site will remain under guard, Boronov said.

One resident of the agricultural and sheep-grazing area said the plane exploded in flight.

“I was working with my father in the field, and I heard an explosion. When I looked up at the sky I saw the fire. When it was falling, the plane split into three pieces,” Sherikbek Turusbekov said.

The U.S. base, which is adjacent to Manas International Airport outside Bishkek, was established in late 2001 to support the international military campaign in Afghanistan. It functions as an interim point for troops going into or out of Afghanistan and as a home for the tanker planes that refuel warplanes in flight.

The Manas base has been the subject of a contentious dispute between the United States and its host nation.

In 2009, the U.S. reached an agreement with the Kyrgyz government to use it in return for $60 million a year. But the lease runs out in June 2014, and the U.S. wants to keep the base longer to aid in the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. Kyrgyzstan is reluctant to extend the lease.

On Monday, a Boeing 747 cargo plane crashed just after takeoff from the U.S. military base in Bagram, Afghanistan, killing all seven people aboard. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating that crash since it was on the Bagram air base.

Pentagon cuts number of furlough days

The Pentagon will sharply cut the number of unpaid furlough days civilians will be forced to take over the next several months from 22 to 14, defense officials said Wednesday, reducing the impact of automatic budget cuts on as many as 700,000 workers. Some 13,000 civilians at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base are among the workers who will benefit. The Pentagon has estimated the furlough of 26,000 workers in Ohio would mean about $167 million in lost wages. Reducing the furlough by eight days will lower the lost wages to $106.3 million.

According to defense officials, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel made the decision Wednesday, as military service chiefs and defense leaders continued to work through the details, trying to prioritize how they will allocate the more than $10 billion that Congress, in an attempt to take some of the sting out of the across-the-board budget cuts, shifted to operations and maintenance accounts. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter ahead of the public announcement.

While some of the military services initially considered eliminating the furloughs altogether, senior leaders argued that since not all the services could do that, it would be better to treat all civilians across the defense department equally.

The military had been faced with some $43 billion in automatic, across-the-board cuts that kicked in March 1, but lawmakers passed a massive spending bill last week that shifted money around in order to give the Defense Department more flexibility in how it found the savings.

Initially, civilians would have been required to take one day a week off without pay for 22 weeks, through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30 — a 20 percent pay cut for more than five months. The congressional action has given officials the leeway to lessen the salary cuts and also spread money around to other key priorities, including training, maintenance and possible ship deployments.

As an example, the Navy had delayed the refueling overhauls of two aircraft carriers, the USS Theodore Roosevelt and the USS Abraham Lincoln — critical maintenance work that officials said would be among the priorities if additional funding could be identified.

Under the new plan, the unpaid furloughs would not begin until mid-June, with notices going out before that.

Officials have been meeting over the past week to discuss the range of options, including how many of the furlough days could be eliminated.

The Pentagon has declined to say how many of the 800,000 civilian employees would be exempt from the furloughs, although officials have estimated it would be at least 10 percent of the overall civilian workforce. Officials said last week that about 5 percent of Navy and Marine Corps civilians and about 24 percent of Army civilians likely would be exempt from the furloughs, although those numbers may change with the new funding.

Exempt workers include civilians in the war zone and in critical public safety jobs, as well as people whose jobs are not paid for through congressional funding. As an example, some employees may be contractors or people working in facilities that pay for operations out of their earnings, such as some recreation jobs or foreign military sales.

Critics have complained that the Pentagon has overstated the effects of the spending cuts and has canceled or sliced into more visible and popular programs. In early announcements the Navy delayed the deployment of an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf and canceled several other ship deployments, while other services slashed training, equipping and maintenance programs, cut commissary hours and warned that 15,000 teachers and staff would be furloughed one day a week at the 194 military schools around the world.

The Pentagon had said they would manage those furloughs so that pupils got the required hours of education and the schools did not lose their accreditation.

Copyright The Associated Press

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