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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

Reserves at March Base Set to Join Air Action

Southland: Their aircraft can transport cargo and people and refuel NATO fighters in flight.

April 17, 1999|TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RIVERSIDE — They read the headlines too, and the 5,000 or so Air Force and California National Guard reserves who fly out of the March Air Reserve Base--ranging from cops and construction workers to teachers and doctors--are ready for action.

"The checklists are coming out of the drawers. We're making sure personnel have their shots and their training is up to date," said Stephen Razo, public affairs chief at the air base alongside Interstate 215, between Riverside and Moreno Valley.

March ARB is the home of the Air Force's 452nd Air Mobility Wing as well as the 163rd Air Refueling Wing of the California Air National Guard. Between them, cargo and personnel can be airlifted, refugees can be treated and transported to safety, fighter aircraft can be refueled in midair and field hospitals can be sent where they're needed to treat casualties.

"We're ready," said Sr. Master Sgt. William Nicoletti, spokesman for the 163rd. "Today is a normal workday--which is, training ourselves to go out and support the Air Force."

If the call for action does come, military officials here say they hope to fill the ranks from among volunteers before turning to mandatory call-ups.

Technically, the 163rd--which flies KC-135 air refueling tankers--reports to Gov. Gray Davis, one of four air wings assigned to the California National Guard. Others include the 146th Airlift Wing, flying C-130s out of Port Hueneme, the 129th Air Rescue Wing, which flies C-130s and helicopters out of San Jose, and the 144th Fighter Wing near Fresno.

While they are available in the event of a disaster in California to deliver fuel, supplies and personnel, and to search for and evacuate victims, 95% of their cost is financed by the federal government, and the personnel are trained for a military mission.

The 163rd at March is assigned nine Stratotankers, with the support of about 900 personnel, including 80 or so cockpit crew members from the ranks of the commercial airline industry.

It is uncertain how many, if any, of the 163rd's personnel may be called up for action, Nicoletti said. It is conceivable, he said, that the call will come only for crew members without the aircraft--or for the planes alone, to be flown by Air Force regulars. It's possible too that the call will come only for maintenance personnel, cooks, medical technicians or clerk-typists, he said.

The Air Force Reserve's 452nd Air Mobility Wing includes about 180 crew members to fly 20 C-141 cargo planes and about 80 crew members for its 10 KC-135 air tankers, which typically position themselves over oceans to serve as high-flying gas stations.

These crew members also, in civilian life, fly commercial aircraft, Razo said.

The wing also includes 120 medical personnel--about 25 doctors, with the rest made up of nurses and medical technicians. They staff the wing's portable, high-tech field hospital as well as treat casualties as they are being transported to hospitals elsewhere.

Depending on the number of reserves needed, Razo said, the ranks may be filled by volunteers before calls go out to others. "In the past, we've been very successful in filling our quotas through volunteerism," he said. "What we're doing now is clarifying who is currently worldwide deployable, so if the call comes and we get volunteers, we'll know their immediate status."

The reserves are accustomed to action. Many from March have, in recent months and years, flown humanitarian missions to Central America and filled military duties in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Somalia and the Persian Gulf War.

The 452nd is also "the way out of town," Razo said, when the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force out of Camp Pendleton, in San Diego County, needs to be airlifted.

On the Web

Extended coverage of the crisis in Yugoslavia is available at The Times' Web site at http://www.latimes.com/yugo. Coverage includes hourly updates, all Times stories since NATO launched its attack, video clips, information on how to help the refugees, a primer on the conflict and access to our discussion group.

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