Retired colonel directs F-35 transition at Eielson

In this July 26 photo, retired Colonel Kevin Blanchard, Director of the 354th Fighter Wing F-35 Program Integration Office, poses for photos at Eielson Air Force Base. Blanchard was among the last A-10 pilots to leave Eielson Air Force Base in 2007 when the Air Force was downsizing and considering closing the base.

In this July 26 photo, retired Colonel Kevin Blanchard, Director of the 354th Fighter Wing F-35 Program Integration Office, poses for photos at Eielson Air Force Base. Blanchard was among the last A-10 pilots to leave Eielson Air Force Base in 2007 when the Air Force was downsizing and considering closing the base.

EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE — A retired colonel has been working to get Eielson Air Force Base ready for its coming growth spurt since before the official announcement that two squadrons of F-35 fighter planes are coming here.

Kevin Blanchard was among the last A-10 pilots to leave Eielson Air Force Base in 2007 when the Air Force was downsizing and considering closing the base, reported the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

In his new role, he’s planning for growth at the base as it undergoes $500 million in new construction in anticipation of the first F-35 Joint Strike Fighters in 2020. Last year, he was hired as the director of the 354th Fighter Wing’s F-35 Program Integration Office.

“It’s a cool challenge,” he said. “I’ve closed a lot of units in my career and those are always sad times and fairly easy. Opening a unit is just the opposite. There’s a lot more that goes into it, but it’s much happier.”

Last fall, leaders at Eielson recruited Blanchard for the job of preparing the base for the possible influx of hundreds of new airmen and the F-35s. This spring the Air Force made it official that the service plans to station the new planes here starting in 2020.

When Blanchard flew away from Eielson in 2007, he didn’t expect he’d be back to help to set up a new unit. He knew he did want to come back to Alaska upon retirement. He moved back to North Pole in 2014 when he retired as the commander of the 355th Fighter Wing at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona.

Blanchard is from Old Town, Maine, and enjoys Interior Alaska’s outdoor opportunities including watersking and snowmachining. He also likes North Pole’s small town community and wanted to avoid moving his family any more while his son completes high school.

In his Air Force career, Blanchard flew HC-130 search and rescue planes and MC-12 reconnaissance planes. He’s spent more than 1,000 hours piloting the A-10, the close air support plane often known as the warthog. The A-10 is his favorite airframe he’s piloted.

“I love the mission. The A-10 is devoted to support troops on the grounds,” he said. “It’s a single seat airplane so everything that goes right is your fault, everything that goes wrong is your fault. That kind of appeals to my personality.”

Blanchard never had a chance to pilot the F-35, but since he took his current job he’s been on site visits to see air bases that will house the new fighter jet in Arizona and Utah.

He and a staff of three airmen work from an office near the Eielson flightline to prepare for the arrival of the first new airmen and planes. Recently, his thoughts were on the services required by the estimated 1,250 new airmen and civilian workers.

The current Air Force budget now before Congress includes funding for the largest construction year in preparation for the F-35s including hangars, missile facilities and magazines.

In future years, there are plans for more facilities to support airmen at Eielson, Blanchard said. Unlike many air bases, Eielson doesn’t now have food service that’s accessible to aircraft maintainers.

A planned flight kitchen will allow maintainers to grab a quick bite while aircraft are out on sorties.

There are also plans for a new afterschool daycare center at Eielson. The current one has a waiting list of 47 people and the new F-35 units are forecast to bring an additional 100 school-aged children to the base, he said.

“There’s going to be lots of construction going on. I think the important thing to remember is that at most bases where the Air Force is bedding down F-35s, they’re replacing other assets,” he said. “Here at Eielson it’s all additive mission. We’re keeping our 18th Aggressor Squadron. We’re keeping our Red Flag Squadron.”

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