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Hurricane-hunter planes, staff moving from MacDill to Lakeland

NOAA's hurricane hunter flight and research team, at work here during the Atlantic storm season that ends Wednesday, will move to Lakeland after being evicted from Macdill Air Force Base in Tampa. [LUIS SANTANA  |   Times

NOAA's hurricane hunter flight and research team, at work here during the Atlantic storm season that ends Wednesday, will move to Lakeland after being evicted from Macdill Air Force Base in Tampa. [LUIS SANTANA | Times

LAKELAND — After more than two decades at MacDill Air Force Base, the hurricane hunting airplanes known as Kermit and Miss Piggy are moving to Lakeland.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has selected Lakeland Linder Regional Airport as home for its Aircraft Operations Center for the next decade, said NOAA Capt. Michael Silah, who runs the center.

Headed east are Kermit and Miss Piggy — venerable Orion WP-3 propeller planes — along with a Gulfstream IV jet known as Gonzo and about 110 employees. The Orions fly into storms, collecting information about track and intensity, while the Gulfstream IV flies above, collecting data.

NOAA is under a time crunch to get the new aircraft operations center up and running before the next hurricane season really heats up, Silah said. The six-month 2016 season ended Wednesday and the 2017 season starts June 1.

Moving will begin May 1 and must be completed by June 30, Silah said.

Though the operation is leaving Tampa, Mayor Bob Buckhorn said NOAA proved to be a boon for Tampa during its time at the base and even credited the operation with helping save the base.

In the early 1990s, with MacDill under threat of closure by the independent Base Closure and Realignment Commission, Buckhorn — then an aide to Mayor Sandra Freedman — helped negotiate bringing NOAA here.

"They took ownership of the runway when MacDill was at risk of being shuttered," Buckhorn said. "I have a lot of affection for NOAA because they allowed us to buy the time necessary for the BRAC to reverse its decision."

MacDill evicted NOAA to make room for more of the Air Force's own jets — a development Buckhorn called a "win-win" for the region.

Lakeland Linder was selected as the lowest of two bidders, with a 10-year, $13.5 million proposal that includes building out an existing hangar shell. Only one other location competed, Silah said — St. Pete Clearwater International Airport.

MacDill was never in the running because it had no money to build a new hangar couldn't meet construction deadlines, he said.

The selection of Lakeland Linder was announced Wednesday during a news conference at the airport, which is owned and operated by the city of Lakeland.

"They were aggressive and crazy," Silah said. "But they're our kind of crazy. "

He added, "This is going to be a significantly better facility for us. It's modern and gives us more work space."

Silah said he hopes all members of his staff will make the move but he understands that some may be put off by the daily trip to Lakeland.

Lakeland, the Florida Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration will front the money to build the new center, City Manager Tony Delgado said.

The project was unanimously approved earlier in the day by the mayor and the six-member city commission, Delgado said.

For NOAA, the move was made necessary when the Air Force allocated eight additional KC-135 Stratotanker aerial refueling jets to MacDill's contingent of 16. That meant the base needed Hangar 5, NOAA's long-time home, to accommodate the new jets and some 400 crew members.

Members of Florida's congressional delegation said they were pleased the NOAA operation isn't moving far, but Rep. Kathy Castor holds out hope the operation will return someday to MacDill.

"Expanding the KC-135 aircraft was a big win for our region," said Castor, a Tampa Democrat, "and hopefully we can work to secure a new modern hangar in future years for the hurricane hunters as well."

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.

Hurricane-hunter planes, staff moving from MacDill to Lakeland 11/30/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 30, 2016 3:52pm]
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