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KC-135 tankers take flight from Kansas storms at Grand Forks Air Force Base

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Col. Jeremy Thiel, acting wing commander for the 319th Air Base Wing, poses for a portrait in front of the KC-135 tanker that he has flown in the past at the Grand Forks Air Force base near Grand Forks on Thursday. (Joshua Komer/Grand Forks Herald)2 / 4
A KC-135 tanker sits on a runway at Grand Forks Air Force Base. (Joshua Komer/Grand Forks Herald)3 / 4
Six KC-135 tanker are currently being held at at the Grand Forks Air Force base until weather is better in Kansas. (Joshua Komer/Grand Forks Herald)4 / 4

It's been years since KC-135 tankers have been a regular sight at Grand Forks Air Force Base, but on Thursday a reminder of days past rolled down its more than 12,000-foot runway.

Six KC-135 tankers landed at the base at 1 p.m. after a flight from McConnell Air Force Base, near Wichita, ahead of storms moving through Kansas. Col. Jeremy Thiel, acting wing commander for the 319th Air Base Wing, said it was a bit of a nostalgic moment: He used to fly tankers into Grand Forks Air Force Base, swapping aircraft out of MacDill Air Force Base in south Florida. He said the ability to move aircraft out of the tornado belt and into North Dakota is a "big asset," for the Air Force, which can rely on the region's less volatile weather and lighter air traffic.

"It's really situational-dependent," Thiel said. "I don't know if we do it more often than other bases, but that capability is very important."

The six tankers arrive while Air Force leaders are still finalizing the future of a set of KC-46A tankers. Grand Forks was one of a handful of bases considered for the position, though it was announced in January that New Jersey and California bases are preferred locations for the mission. Air Force officials stress that the selection process isn't complete.

"We're (in a) second-place kind of thing. If something were to happen to Travis or Mcguire, they would be able to look at us," Thiel said. "But something would have to happen."

The tankers are expected to stay in the area for several days, depending on the weather, Thiel said. Shaun Shenk, public affairs chief for the base, said the base's "pristine flight line" and "unfettered air space" make the base a helpful stop for aircraft diverted for weather reasons.

"We're able to supply this capability to the Air Force on short notice," Shenk said.

Sam Easter

Sam Easter is a City Government reporter for the Grand Forks Herald. You can reach him with story tips, comments and ideas at 701-330-3441.

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