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Utah ANG KC-135 first plane to land at St. George airport

ST GEORGE UTAH -- With the sharp chirp of rubber meeting concrete, a Utah Air National Guard KC-135 Stratotanker marked history on Jan. 11, 2011, as the first aircraft to officially land at the new St. George, Utah airport.

Landing two days before the official opening, the 151st Air Refueling Wing had been invited to bring their aircraft to the grand opening celebration to showcase the capabilities of the new airport.

"It was appropriate that the first official landing was military, because we owe a lot to our military and what they do for us," said St. George Mayor Dan McArthur in the opening speech on January 12.

During his speech, Mayor McArthur thanked the military and also noted the size of the aircraft on the ramp, stating the KC-135 was so big that it dwarfed the 737. He then relayed how the mayor's office had started receiving excited phone calls about the "big gray plane flying so low" over the area, and that the callers couldn't believe it when the mayor's staff told them that it was actually landing there.

Previously, the St. George airport supported only the smallest propeller aircraft for commercial airline companies. The old airport sat on a bluff above town and was notorious for treacherous crosswinds. There was no room to expand, and the city couldn't attract larger or additional aircraft to increase air travel possibilities for local citizens.

Planning for the new airport began in 2000. The $200-million budget for the new airport, funded by state and federal grants, was larger than the city's entire combined budget. The new airport, now located southeast of the city, has a terminal that is 250 percent larger than the old one, a runway that is 40 percent longer to accommodate larger aircraft, and has thousands of acres surrounding it that allows for future growth.

At the pre-flight briefing before the historic flight, it was noted that the airport was so new that there was limited information available concerning the runway and instrumentation. To get a better feel for the new field, it was decided that a few fly-by passes would be a good idea. After three near ground-level passes, the KC-135 finally touched down on the fourth run, to a very excited crowd of airport workers and local news crews.

"It was exciting to be the first ones to land here," said Capt. Todd Deshler, the co-pilot for the historic landing. "It's exciting to fly into a new airport, especially one within the state of Utah. The mission was a great opportunity, as it gave the crew the chance to do a site survey of the field. We can now use this airport for practice and emergencies."