by Russ Steele
I was once assigned to Beale AFB for a few hours in 1975, as an electronic warfare planner in the 9th Reconnaissance Wing. After spending 14 months in Thailand, I was looking forward to ending my 20-year career in the Air Force at Beale AFB, which is right in my Nevada County backyard. When I got on a contract 737 in Thailand, I was assigned to Beale AFB. When I got off a DC-8 at Travis AFB, 23 hours later, I had been reassigned to Offutt AFB in Omaha, Nebraska. I was never allowed to sign in at Beale AFB.
Ellen and our three oldest daughters, were living in a rental house near Nevada Union High School, and they thought a Beale assignment was great news. They would not have to move again. I could live in Nevada County and commute to Beale AFB using the back gate off Smartville Road. But, it was not to be.
As a retired Air Force Lt Col Electronics Warfare Officer, who worked very closely with Air Force intelligence agencies in previous assignments, I have always had a strong interest in Beale, as they hosted a prime USAF intelligence collection asset, the SR-71. Beale is home base to the U-2 Dragon Lady, RQ-4 Global Hawk, and now the MC-12W Liberty, which is also an intelligence collection platform.
The MC-12W Liberty is a multi-mission aircraft. That is what the M stands for under the military aircraft designation system. Most reconnaissance aircraft have an R designation such as a C-12 version operated by the Army, called the RC-12N Guardrail Common Sensor Program. The RC-12H is a battlefield signals intelligence collection system. The MC-12W has a much different mission.
USAF is buying 7 MC-12W Beechcraft King Air 350S to train crews at Beale AFB for their overseas missions. They are buying 27 Extended Range Special-Mission Beechcraft King Air 350ER modified for deployment in theater.
The USAF is integrating the Gorgon Stare video capture technology into the MC-12W. Gorgon Stare looks over broad areas such as small towns, and is designed to detect motion. It has a playback capability that allows the aircrew to observe a roadside bomb explosion and then replay the video to see what led to that explosion. They can also send the data via satellite to processing centers for distribution to field units. The aircraft will also be equipped with a laser designation system that can pinpoint a real time target for combat aircraft. Roadside bomb planters will rue the day they are observed by a Liberty aircraft.
This new mission will add an additional 550 military personal and about 150 contractors to the base. This is expected to give the Yuba-Sutter region an annual economic boost of about $450 million per year, according to Congressman Wally Herger’s office. The first plane arrived in May, with the full complement of seven to arrive by the end of July. The other 27 aircraft are now, and will be, deployed overseas.
Due to the substandard housing on base, many of the married airmen will have to seek housing off base; this will be an economic advantage to the Yuba-Sutter area. However, it was noted in an Appeal-Democrat blog comment that some personnel are seeking housing in Lincoln and Roseville, commuting to the base. The contractors are expected to be initially housed in hotels and motels according to a press release.
One has to wonder, if the airmen are commuting to Lincoln and Roseville, why not Nevada County? That was my plan in the 1970s. One reason might be the conditions of the roads leading from Nevada County to the base. The Smartville Road was in terrible shape the last time we went to Beale by the Grass Valley Gate. This is a Yuba County road, so there is not much economic developers or real estate mavens can do about improving the road from Nevada County.
Years ago we used the Recreation Services at Beale AFB to rent some camping and gold mining equipment and were pleasantly surprised to find brochures on activities in Grass Valley, Nevada City, and Truckee. I was equally surprised this week when I went on the Beale AFB Recreation Services webpage and could not find any information on events in Nevada County. I called the Recreation Services office to ask if they had a Calendar of Events for Grass Valley and Nevada City. I was told they only had brochures on Nevada County wineries, but no event calendars.
It seems to me that our local event planners and economic developers are missing a huge new audience, with an influx of new personnel coming to the base. Recreation Services has an excellent webpage with many suggested recreation activities and special Staycation Packages, but none for Nevada County. For example, the Granlibakken Resort, North Lake Tahoe, Placer County is offering Beale airmen a weekend getaway package. No Nevada County getaway packages?
I called both the Grass Valley and Nevada City Chambers of Commerce and alerted them to lack of tourism and recreational information available at Beale’s Recreation Services. The Official Base Web, which has a section for promoting local places to visit and have a mini-vacation, was totally void of any information about Nevada County community events, festivals, farmers' markets, and great restaurants.
What is it about our local Chambers of Commerce? They don’t seem to understand marketing. As one of the representatives said, “we have all that information on our web- site.” Right, but there are billions of websites. If your target audience does not know the website exists, it is a non-starter for information distribution.
Both Chambers said they would get right on the problem and contact Beale AFB Recreation Services, to establish some links to local webpages and to send some event calendars.
When the BRAC Commission, which was looking for bases to close, threatened Beale with closure in 2005, the community was concerned about Beale AFB being on the closure list. There were community meetings and long articles in the Union about the local economic affect of Beale AFB being on a closure list. The community was galvanized to save the base and the 3,000 airmen that worked there.
So, why are we ignoring this audience of potential visitors now with money in their pockets? There are 3,500 airmen, many with families, who are now living and working just 30-40 minutes away, and our economic development organizations just do not seem to be paying much attention to them. Why?
Nevada County has a lot to offer in recreation and tourism, and it seems to me that the whole community should be letting everyone at Beale AFB know that they are welcome to visit Nevada County, spend some money, and create some great memories in the process. How hard is that? Let’s let these military members know they are welcome in Nevada County, and not wait for the next base closure list to recognize their economic potential to our community.
Russ Steele is a former Air Force Officer who is now a freelance writer and blogger at NC Media Watch.