KEEPING BUCKLEY ALOFT: The mission to find room for Aurora’s Air Force base to survive

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AURORA | After double checking the weapons strapped to the wings — including a cement bomb destined for a training target outside of Pueblo —  Lt. Col. Kurt Tongren climbed into the cockpit of the F-16 Fighting Falcon Tuesday morning.

Shortly before 10 a.m., the Colorado Air National Guard pilot wheeled onto a runway at Buckley Air Force Base and zoomed south into the Aurora sky, heading toward a Southern Colorado practice bombing range.

It’s a scene that plays out regularly at the sprawling air base on Aurora’s eastern edge and one local lawmakers hope will continue well into the future, possibly with more-modern jets.

But to do that — and ensure that the base continues to thrive and grow — officials say it’s crucial that Buckley avoid the sorts of problems that eventually helped lead to the closure of Lowry Air Force Base in 1994, namely nearby development encroaching too close to the base and its loud jets for anyone’s comfort.

Earlier this month, Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, asked Congress for an additional $15 million for the base’s Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration Program, known as REPI. Through the program, the base purchases parcels of land near its borders, creating a buffer zone that keeps homes and business from getting too close to the base.

“This $15.8 million increase in REPI funding ensures that Buckley can continue to be a base for our Air National Guard’s fighter aircraft for decades to come,” Coffman said in a statement.

The base’s importance to the city’s economy is tough to overstate. According to the Aurora Economic Development Council, the 11,000 employees at the base make it Aurora’s biggest employer. And last year it pumped more than $1 billion into the local economy, according to the Air Force’s estimate.

“Buckley is absolutely vital to our local economy and to our national security, and I am pleased that this funding will be included in the 2017 (National Defense Authorization Act),” Coffman said.

To keep the installation thriving, the Air Force in recent years has purchased several swaths of land around the base, ensuring those parcels remain.

Gregory Long, deputy base civil engineer at Buckley and of the base staffers tasked with leading REPI efforts, said about 40 percent of the “buffer area” around Buckley is already protected by various public lands. The Air Force’s goal, he said, is to acquire that other 60 percent, be it through purchases or land swaps. In all, securing that land will cost about $40 million, money Long said is coming from a variety of sources, including city of Aurora, the Air Force, Arapahoe County and the state.

Ensuring that airplanes can take off and land without the noise bothering neighbors is a concern for any air base, Long said.

“They are noisy. You can hear them everywhere,” he said. “And we are doing everything we can to protect their flying mission.”

The planes also require large safety zones at the end of their runways with little to no development, he said.

But Buckley’s buffer zone is more complicated than many bases.

The Air Force 460th Space Wing — the base’s biggest tenant — is tasked with providing missile warning across the globe. That satellite system means if a missile were launched in North Korea, for example, Buckley personnel would be the ones who spot it and issue a warning, Long said.

But that system requires unencumbered “look angles” for the base, which means construction along the base’s edge is height limited.

“We have to protect those look angles,” he said.

The tricky thing is, Long said, Buckley can’t simply tell builders what they can or can’t do on a parcel they may purchase.

“We can’t dictate to the local community what gets built where, but we work with their planning division,” he said.

Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan said city officials are acutely aware of how important it is that the city’s rapid growth to the east and south don’t put Buckley’s future at risk.

Still, Aurora officials know firsthand what could happen to a base should development get close and the planes eventually stop flying.

When Lowry closed more than two decades ago it did so in part because its mission no longer involved jets flying. The jets stopped flying there in part because residents living near the base on the line between Denver and Aurora complained about noise.

“That was a tough lesson for everybody to learn, but it was a lesson that we all paid attention to,” Hogan said.

Hogan said Buckley’s impact goes well beyond the more than 11,000 people who work there. The base’s space mission also has helped lure high-paying private employers to town.

“Raytheon wouldn’t be here without Buckley Air Force Base, Boeing wouldn’t be here without Buckley Air Force Base, Northrup Grumman wouldn’t be here without Buckley Air Force Base,” he said.

And beyond economics, Buckley is an important piece of the city’s culture and the reason many retired military personnel chose the city in the first place, he said.

“At its heart, Aurora still has a strong connection to the military,” he said. “There is still that awareness that we are tied to the military, both in our history and in our future.”